“No offense Irvi but you don’t look like much of a farm girl.”
I get it, I definitely don’t look the part. That statement resonated with me even after I excitedly told a colleague of mine of the trip to Stone Barns Center right outside of New York City. Little did that friend know how much this experience, at Chef Dan Barber’s farm in Tarrytown, meant to me.
Recently, I convinced some wonderfully adventurous Brooklynites to take a trip to upstate New York and accompany me on a farm tour at the Stone Barns Center. With all my heart and soul, New York City is eventually where I find myself, fully immersed in all of its beauty but especially its world of food & beverage. Having done my time in kitchens in Las Vegas after culinary school, I’ve done the constant trips to Los Angeles, and while I absolutely love the food scene there, nothing compares to The City.
From Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, New York is constantly churning out the best of the best. Ever since my days in culinary school, I’ve always dreamt of exploring the food world that The City has to offer. I’m no stranger to New York but upstate is a fascinating dreamland I’ve never ventured to before. The drive out of Manhattan (which, on a Friday right after the work day ends is the definition of a nightmare) into upstate displays the grand transition of skyscrapers and industrial buildings to lush greenery as far as the eye can see. Wide-eyed, even after a long day of running from brunch in the Lower East Side at the coveted Russ and Daughters Café to Dominique Ansel Kitchen, I couldn’t close my eyes even for a minute, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take in my surroundings had I even dared to doze off.
In a funny way of miscommunication, we found ourselves an hour and a half north from Tarrytown, in the town of Hudson, at one of the loveliest Airbnb’s I’ve been privy to stay in. Calling it an early night after bubbles and a quick lesson in poker (yes, I’m a Vegas girl that doesn’t know how to play cards or gamble, blasphemy, I know), we called it a night in order to prep for our tour the next day.
There’s something about waking up in the countryside, with its natural light and beauty that had me up and ready to go quite early in the morning. After coffee and tea, we took the trek back down to Stone Barns. When I was younger, my family used to take several road trips over the summer. One of them, in particular, was to Disneyworld, and I couldn’t keep my excitement from showing. From my sweaty palms to daydreams of which ride I wanted to jump on first to the long gazes out of the window wondering if we had arrived, I couldn’t wait until we had arrived. This ride was practically the same thing except Dan Barber’s The Third Plate was in my lap as I re-read my favorite excerpts quietly daydreaming of the farm and all of the wonderful people I would encounter.
The drive into Stone Barns is nothing short of magical. The Rockefellers owned and operated the eighty acres of land that the farm rests on. Grandiose stone buildings rest on rolling green hills, the scent of the country, followed with the morning dew and light mist made it a perfect day for our tour.
From meeting the sheep, collecting eggs, grabbing coffee and treats at Blue Hill Café, and every activity in between, I found myself in awe of the people that make Stone Barns what it is. We met Chris, the livestock manager, who went to great lengths to explain their composting system after speaking to the volunteers at the sheep’s meadow.
Multiple trips were made to the café for snacks and conversation with Jose and the rest of the friendly baristas. After ordering a London fog latte and asking for any milk alternative, Jose responded with, “You must be from the city if you’re asking for alternatives.” I promptly responded with: “No, even worse, from Austin.” I was lovingly dubbed Miss Texas for the rest of the day.
After lunch and a quick stint of making spring rolls with vegetables straight from the farm, we found ourselves walking the grounds and being distracted by all the dogs but especially one in particular. I ran up to this beautiful pup, asked his owner what his name was and excitedly loved on him as I do with all the dogs I run into. “His name is Zeke”, he said as I looked up and to my surprise, Jack Algiere, Stone Barn’s farm director, was standing in front of me.
Meeting Jack is probably the equivalent of meeting the Queen of England in my eyes. He was the first hire of the Stone Barns Center and is a huge advocate in the agriculture and sustainable farming movements. In Barber’s The Third Plate, he has an excerpt on just Jack that strikes a chord, humanizing the sustainable farm culture and his love for biodynamic and ecological systems. Algiere graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in horticulture and has been farming ever since. Having introduced myself (and blatantly telling him I was a huge fan, yes, what a nerd), he invited us into the greenhouse to have a chat about the farm, agriculture, and what sustainable farming means today. I swear, I could listen to that man talk about potato varieties for hours. He’s unassuming, kind, and very knowledgeable in his craft. It’s evident that the man loves what he does and I was in complete awe of his ability to differentiate between several varieties and the science behind farming.
After our chat, Jack informed us of swiss chard transplanting in the larger part of the greenhouse so we hurriedly made our way over. Gardening and getting my hands dirty reminds me of my grandmother, who had such a natural green thumb in her garden when we lived in south Texas. Excitedly, I sprinted towards the grids and volunteers where the transplanting would take place. “Hi! How many swiss chard can we plant?” Ashley Monk, the greenhouse apprentice replied with, “As many as you’d like!” I tore off both my jackets and threw them to the side, readying myself. I honestly lost count how many I planted because I was so enthralled by my conversation with her.
Ashley’s fairly new to Stone Barns, being there for about three months, after leaving her job at a social justice non-profit in Minnesota. Her foray into farming began when she started volunteering at the Women’s Environmental Institute in North Branch, Minnesota. Ashley draws inspiration from her mentors, Karen Clarke and Jacque Zita, who have done tremendous work at the organization. She further cemented her decision to farm full-time after attending the National-International Urban and Small Farm Conference in Milwaukee in November 2014. The inspiration from the movers and shakers of the urban agriculture movement was a profound experience for her. Her background as a human rights activist helped form her belief that changing the food system has deep implications for social change and social justice. “Food is so alive, and deeply embedded with meaning”, Monk recalls as she explains the impact that it has on ecological sustainability, community, and health as well as racial, economic, and social justice. She further reiterates that self-renewing, resilient systems of farming create the conditions for self-renewal and resilience for entire communities.
After watching Dan Barber’s Ted Talks: “How I Fell in Love with a Fish” and “A Foie Gras Parable” as well as reading The Third Plate, she made it a point to work there. “The regenerative farming practices, philosophy, and experimentation happening at Stone Barns really resonated with me, and I knew that something really special and unique was happening there that I wanted to be a part of and learn from”, she explains with such vigor. Determined to work at Stone Barns, she checked the Growing Farmer’s Initiative website to discover to her dismay that there weren’t any openings. Coincidentally, the next day, she received an e-mail from a sustainable AG-list server that said Stone Barn was hiring. She jumped on the opportunity and applied, interviewed with Jack, and immediately accepted the position as greenhouse apprentice. It’s clear the impact that he can make, as Ashley gushes, “It’s funny reading about someone in a book and then meeting them and getting to work with them; I was, and am, so excited and humbled to be able to work with Jack, who is an extraordinary farmer and human being!”
Every single person I met that day helped shape the way that I look at farming, agriculture, and the way that our food makes it to our table. I’m thankful for all the new friends I made that day, the people that were adventurous enough to share this experience, and Stone Barns Center for being such a huge proponent for the farm to table movement and agriculture.