Jack Algiere shrugs off the more sensational aspects of the restaurant overlooking his fields. Blue Hill at Stone Barns served as a culinary battlefield during season five of Top Chef, and last year, Barack and Michelle Obama dined at Blue Hill's Manhattan location as helicopters whirred overhead. Even today, no one knows what The President ate. Or at least no one at Stone Barns will say. All Algiere, Four Season Farm Manager, wants to talk about is plants and soil and ensuring the two work responsibly in his ground and in his customer's kitchens.
"We're on 80 total acres," Algiere says as we walk across rolling fields less than 30 miles north of Times Square. "The Center raises 65 sheep a year, 90 lambs, 1,200 egg-laying hens, 4,700 meat chickens, 120 pigs, 650 turkeys, 14-1,500 pounds of tomatoes, 8,000 pounds of potatoes... think about that kind of weight. It's a lot more than you'd expect."
That's what the farm pushes out without pushing the earth to its breaking point. Unlike industrial farms, Stone Barns employs what Algiere modestly refers to as "ecological practices." Other catchphrases might be more familiar. Organic, all natural, sustainable, responsible ... each fits to describe a part of what Stone Barns does. None tells the whole story.
The Low-Down on Green Lingo
"Organic," as designated by the USDA, is any food that contains 95 percent plant and animal ingredients untreated by chemicals. It's a label that is useful for little more than breakfast cereal. "All Natural" isn't regulated by the FDA. It is used to sell everything from sodas made from concentrate to frozen veggie patties that contain MSG.
"Sustainable," used to describe certain methods of oil drilling and even dance clubbing, is perhaps the most misunderstood catchphrase of all. Jack won't commit to calling the farm "sustainable," though you can find the word printed on some of the promotional materials at the visitor center. The farm is at the mercy of outside forces. Farmers and farm things come and go at Stone Barns. Much of the manure used to fertilize its soil is trucked in from neighboring cattle farms. "When it goes back to the forest," Algiere says of his fields, "that's when it's really sustainable."
Algiere frequently uses the term "resilient" as I follow him across the property. Everything the Center's farmers do, from setting planting schedules on a 7-family rotation to mating pigs twice a year as opposed to the industry standard three, they do with the future in mind. Algiere thinks about what will be pulled from the soil in a day, while forecasting the health of that soil into the next decade.
As I walk with him through an outdoor field filled with eggplants, kohlrabi, green sweet peppers, and hybrid and heirloom tomatoes, he points at a patch of recently upturned earth. "This field right here is a 7-year rotation," he said. "It takes 7 years for beans to end up here again."
Call it what you will, Stone Barns is one of the most responsible farms in the United States. It's a nonprofit funded by income from educational programs and farm products - which are sold at a farmers market on the property as well as Blue Hill's two restaurants - and supplemented by membership fees and donations.
"We're a nonprofit and we do a lot of things that don't make money," Algiere says. "But the farms make money."
Economics, after all, is the engine that makes Stone Barns, and every other farm, go. "A place has to support itself, support its farmers," Algiere says. Stone Barns does, thanks in part to circumstances that set it apart from the competition. For one, an acclaimed restaurant purchases half the farm's output, boosting the farm's public profile and giving it a reliable buyer. More unusual, and maybe more "sustainable" even, this farm educates its consumers. Sign up for "Hands On Egg Collecting" every summer Sunday or meet the farm's toms and hens in the days leading up to Thanksgiving. You might become a farm-to-table enthusiast yourself.
The Customer's Not Always Right
This allows Algiere to experiment, occasionally fail, and ultimately push the envelope of what a farm can and should do. That was perhaps never more clear than last July, when blight rolled through the Northeast, infecting nearly half of Stone Barns' tomatoes. Unlike other farmers, Algiere embraced the disease and adapted. "I pulled the tomatoes out. I wasn't forced to spray and spray and spray to keep them alive in a place that just didn't make sense," he says. "I planted carrots and beets, doubled my money, and I gained more attention for responsible farming from the doom and gloom than I would have had my tomatoes survived."
Algiere embraces aphids, fungi caterpillars and other pests that most farmers detest. "The pathogen is part of the system and not something to fear," Algiere says.
"I've worked in a greenhouse where we kept it 80 degrees, 365 days a year, and fought disease constantly." Algiere fought by spraying, "spraying it on ourselves in a box," and he witnessed as farmers, his mentor even, developed serious health issues like multiple sclerosis and aneurysms.
"That's what turned me on," he says. "These guys are brilliant people, they know what they're doing but they have no way of getting around what uneducated consumers are telling farmers to do."
Algiere has 600 ways to get around commodity-driven supermarket culture. That's the number of crop varieties Stone Barns has pulled from its soil in the past seven years. He combs rural Asian markets, experimental seed bank registries and historical almanacs to brainstorm what works. Imposing limits on what one can do, he's discovered, can open up unforeseen options.
"There are some restrictions I've set for myself in here," he says of Stone Barns' 22,000 square foot minimally heated greenhouse, which unlike most greenhouses, he lets drop to a chilly 30 degrees Fahrenheit during winter. Every square foot of soil, he says, is worth three cents a day and every crop in the ground has to pay off.
"I grow a lot of greens and root vegetables," he says, noting their fast harvest times, resilience to pests and relatively low energy intensiveness. "I don't grow many fruit vegetables or flowers or things that are budded."
Maybe You Don't Have to Eat Your Broccoli
That means no broccoli. With a footprint of 1.5 square feet and a harvest age of 75 days, a head of broccoli is an expensive, if not irresponsible, crop to grow. Baby arugula, by comparison, takes up one-third the surface and can be harvested in just 13 days.
No broccoli, but yes beets, bok choi, cabbage, carrots, celeriac, escarole, fava beans, garlic, leeks, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, Swiss chard, and zucchini, among dozens of other crops growing just during the summer season. Currently, Stone Barns Center is also producing eggs, meat chickens, geese, lamb, pork, turkeys and honey.
Algiere might know best about what's in the ground and what's grazing, but Barber and Blue Hill's kitchen director Adam Kaye are far from uninformed. They're the ones who put it - as well as produce from 60 other local farms - in peoples' mouths. They have to deal with Manhattan's notoriously snobbish critics. Barber, Kaye and Blue Hill's chefs and servers receive a weekly produce inventory that looks more like a foodie's trip-to-Mars packing list than what your mom takes to the grocery store.
"We are always in touch, every day" Algiere says of his relationship with Barber, who understands that not everything is possible at Stone Barns.
"Working with Jack gives me a whole new set of criteria," Chef Barber wrote via email. "Balancing the economics, the flavor and the ecological imperatives of the farm is what makes this work interesting, and delicious."
Still, Barber isn't beyond making suggestions about what to plant in Algiere's fields. When that happens, the farmer considers the chef's idea.
"I can't be too strict about saying, well, you're crazy if you want these little tiny vegetables," Algiere says. "If he wants his little vegetables, I'll grow them for him, but I'm also going to give him the rationality of the vegetable, and say look, if that's what you want, I'll find a breed that works."
When I asked if there's anything in particular currently in the ground that Barber can't wait to get see in his kitchen, Algiere had a quick answer. "Everything."
Stone Barns Center is open to visitors year-round, Wednesday through Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information on upcoming programs and events, visit www.stonebarnscenter.org
Photos 1, 3, 4 by Sam Brand, photo 2 by Mark Jordan Photography.