Cultivating a legacy

Photographs by Sinéad Deane and courtesy Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture

There’s a quiet elegance about the Pocantico Hills farm informally known as Stone Barns, a vaguely European air.

You sense it as the farm spreads out before you on Bedford Road. And once you wind your way up the serpentine drive and begin exploring the 80-acre property, you’ll sense it at most every turn.

And something more: You just know this is one of those places where everyone takes great care in what they do.

That is reinforced in most every event and activity carried out here, from a hands-on egg-collecting program that leads visitors right to the hen houses to a 12-course farmer’s feast that takes diners at Blue Hill at Stone Barns on a journey through the day’s harvest.

From the selection of natural and locally sourced goods in the farm shop to the detailed trash-recycle-compost stations, there’s a unified sense of purpose and dedication. It’s a unique collaboration in which classiness exists alongside hard (and often down-and-dirty) work.

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a nonprofit farm and education center. Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a noted restaurant operated by the Barber family. Together, the two places create quite a team.

Jill Isenbarger, executive director of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, says there is great strength in the “dynamic nature of the partnership.”

“We really are an education center, a farm and a restaurant,” she says. “There are very few places in the region, in the country, that have the three parts like we do.”

Life on the farm

An illustrated map offers a fitting introduction to the Stone Barns farm, a place where visitors are invited to explore and develop a deeper appreciation for where food comes from.

The property itself was part of the Rockefeller estate, with Stone Barns created by David Rockefeller and his daughter Peggy Dulany in memory of Peggy Rockefeller, their wife and mother respectively. She was a tireless supporter of farmland conservation.

The 1930s dairy farm, anchored by an evocative stone-building complex, supplied the Rockefeller household with fresh milk and vegetables and was thoughtfully renovated and restored to open in 2004 and go on to become today’s agricultural and dining destination.

The hay barn, for example, is now the education center. The restaurant, well-appointed but quietly understated, was carved out of the onetime cow barn.

“The farm and restaurant, they function like a laboratory,” Isenbarger says. “I feel like the spirit of that is starting to run more through our educational programs.”

People can spend the day, taking part in programs and demonstrations, shopping at the farm market, walking the pastures or stopping at the Blue Hill Café, a casual option for lighter – though still farm-based – fare.

Children might sign up for a workshop that takes them from the field to the kitchen to the dining table.

“We try to run classes and programs to get people to think about where you live, what’s special about the place and what is the connection to what gets onto your dinner plate,” Isenbarger says.

Overall, the center focuses on increasing national awareness of the value of fresh, healthy and sustainable food; on connecting children to the sources of their food; and training farmers to carry on the rich tradition.

Like the “back-to-the-land” movement in the 1960s, she says, there is a greater emphasis today on food sourcing and sustainability:

“I feel like we’re seeing something similar but even more powerful in this food movement.”

And that continues to draw more than 100,000 visitors annually, many of whom come to the Harvest Fest. (The ninth annual edition will be held Oct. 6.)

On any given day, though, visitors will wander the pastures and woodlands, spotting sheep grazing and passing by an area dedicated to beehives. They can even wander the Dooryard Garden, where you’re invited to sample a berry in season.

Throughout, the farm uses no pesticides, herbicides or chemical additives. Soil is primarily enriched by compost made on-site.

And its products – including vegetables, eggs, meat, honey and flowers – are sold to the public through its farm market and to both Blue Hill restaurants, the one here and the original in Manhattan.

The Barbers of Blue Hill

Blue Hill is a key component of life at Stone Barns, a ready outlet for its products but also perhaps its more visible face in today’s hot culinary world.

It’s owned by the Barber family, brothers Dan and David and David’s wife, Laureen. The Barber brothers tapped into their childhood summers spent on a family farm, Blue Hill in Great Barrington, Mass., for their ventures into the world of farm-to-table dining.

Laureen is the design director for both the farm and restaurant, drawing on her background in marketing and graphic arts. David Barber is the company president, directing its business and financial affairs, while Dan is the noted executive chef. In addition to helming the kitchens at both Blue Hill restaurants, he is a respected author and authority on food and agricultural policy, who was selected by Barack Obama to serve on The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

“We all have very different skill sets, which is a benefit,” Laureen Barber says.

The Barbers were involved in the center’s creation, from its broad approach to the most practical matters. The spotlight on the Hudson Valley comes from both what is grown on-site and what comes from other local farms.

At Blue Hill, hand-sized booklets list ingredients that reflect the best of the season. Chef Barber works from this. There are no menus.

Overall, Laureen Barber says her role is to “really take the vision of what we’re trying to do and relate it to the customer in terms of service and feel… It’s been a wonderful, a dream project by anyone’s standards.”

And it all reaches back to that collaborative effort.

“The farm and chefs work together to create a vision,” she says. “We set out to really celebrate what’s grown here and present it to the guest in a very creative, very seasonal way.”

Putting the spotlight on locally grown sustainable foods in Manhattan, some five years before the offshoot at Stone Barns opened, was then, she says, “a fairly new conversation to be had.”

Today, people are embracing the philosophy, which extends beyond the farm.

Laureen Barber not only designs everything from the website to the glassware on the tables but is also getting the Blue Hill name out through home accessories.

“We just started selling our products through Williams-Sonoma,” she shares.

“It’s all sort of a reflection on the place,” she adds, noting products really connect with consumers who “like our taste and they like the sensibility of what we do.”

The food, though, is key. And showing children, like her two sons, where it comes from: “I think it’s the best way to teach kids to eat well.”

She admits she eats well, too.

“I love everything,” she says with a laugh. “I’m a very good eater.”

Still, she has some favorites in her brother-in-law’s repertoire.

“I love whatever he does with tomatoes, and I love whatever he does with peas.”

She especially enjoys a salad he makes over which he puts a slow-cooked egg.

It all adds up to time in Pocantico Hills that has captivated everyone involved, Laureen Barber says.

“It’s magical.That has not worn off for me in 10 years. Not an iota. Not an inch has worn off.”

It’s that kind of spirit – taking what they’ve learned and enjoyed at Stone Barns – that Isenbarger says is carried home from the farm:

“I think that people come here or they see what we have to offer or they taste something really special and they want to recreate that.”

For more about Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, including details of the harvest festival, call (914) 366-6200 or visit stonebarnscenter.org. For details on Blue Hill at Stone Barns, call (914) 366-9600 or visit bluehillfarm.com.

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