POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. -- The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, to which First Lady Michelle Obama has invited world leaders and their spouses attending the U.N. General Assembly today, has deep ties to the Agriculture Department's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign to promote local and organic agriculture.
Located on an 80-acre farm north of New York City owned by David Rockefeller, Stone Barns is an unusual combination of Norman-style stone farm buildings, experimental organic farm, education center and one of the most expensive restaurants in the world. The barns were built in the early 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. near Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate, because the family wanted fresh milk. By the 1990s the barns had fallen into disuse. When David Rockefeller's wife, Peggy, an environmentalist and founder of the American Farmland Trust, died in 1996, her husband and daughter converted the farm into an educational center to honor her.
The Rockefellers included a restaurant on the farm, and Dan Barber, the chef-owner of New York's Blue Hill restaurant, decided to try to open a country restaurant branch. Barber, who had studied at Tufts University, persuaded the Rockefellers to seek the advice of Kathleen Merrigan. She helped write the national organic food law when she was an aide to then-Senate Agriculture Chairman Patrick Leahy from 1987 to 1992 and was then teaching at Tufts outside Boston.
Merrigan, who is now Agriculture deputy secretary, recruited Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota organic farmer who had become the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames, as president of the center.
Kirschenmann takes a practical approach, and today Stone Barns grows all kinds of foods and raises animals in what looks like the old-fashioned way, but is constantly experimenting with ways to make organic farming practical and profitable. Thousands of children and beginning farmers come to the center each year to get their hands dirty. At Barber's urging, the center has used "hoop houses," inexpensive cloth or plastic greenhouses that let vegetables grow in winter.
Under Merrigan's direction, USDA programs help farmers all over the country install them. Stone Barns also teaches small farmers to make connections with urban consumers, schools and institutions that may become customers, and Merrigan has encouraged small and organic farmers all over the country to do the same.
The menu for the first lady and her guests has not been announced, but much of the food will come from Stone Barns. It will be prepared by Barber, who serves on the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He cooked for the Obamas when they visited his New York restaurant on a well-publicized date night in May 2009.
The Rockefeller connection and the prices at Blue Hill -- $85 for a four-course Sunday lunch and $135 for an eight-course tasting menu dinner -- create a cliché of the enthusiasm of the wealthy and privileged for organic food. Kirshenmann said that while the restaurant is a place for special occasions, visitors to the center can get ideas on how to garden and eat better.
Stone Barns, Kirschenmann said, "shows us what some of our future agricultural system has to look like. It is not dependent on synthetic fertilizer. It is a demonstration that you can raise a lot of good food without those inputs."
This article appears in the September 25, 2010 edition of NJ Daily.