Although most people have an idea that a KFC's new Double Down bunless sandwich may be a less healthy choice than a chicken salad, we rarely question the chain of events that was necessary to get those bites into our mouths. Where and how exactly was that "food" made? Where was the lettuce grown? How did the carrots come out of the ground? Who drove or flew them to your city and who chopped them? Even more confusing are the questions regarding processed foods like sandwich buns or salad dressing. How were those ingredients baked, put together, preserved, etc.?
The answers to many of these questions lay in what has become somewhat of a foreign place to many Americans -- a place they may never visit, but only see in pictures or that kids read about in books: a farm.
Yep, that's right. A place that if you were to ask most people what it looked like, they would describe it as a lovely large square of green grass populated by a big red barn and a few handful of happy chickens and cows gleefully munching on bales of hay.
For the most part, this idyllic scene is a rarity -- particularly at the gigantic, industrialized farms of today. Here, the cows don't look so happy, the soil has lost its luster, and in many instances, there is not a square foot of green grass to be found. I don't think of these places as "healthy farms."
Fortunately, there is hope in farms like the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture located just a stone's throw from New York City where the soil is nurtured, animals graze and nature is preserved. At this farm and non-profit learning haven, adults and children that may never have had a chance to walk through and observe a real, working farm can witness firsthand the source of delicious, healthily produced meat and produce. Once common, idyllic places like Stone Barns have dramatically decreased in number over the last century. In 1935, there were over 6 million farms in the United States, with farmers making up about 20 percent of the work force. Today, there are only about 2 million farms, and according to census estimates, only one percent of our population claims farming as their occupation.
So access and experiene is key. Not only to understand what a sustainable farm actually looks like but also to get to the bottom of some of the burning questions we face in our society today: How can we fight obesity? Why are farmers financially over-burdened? How can we help cure cancer? Why are health care costs soaring? Why are we so oil dependent? How does organic agriculture help the environment? And educating yourself about healthy, sustainable farming can actually assist you in deciding what to buy at the grocery store and what you'll want for dinner!
This is the message at Stone Barns, a small, healthy farm that has opened its doors to us. The folks there want to make us more educated consumers. Here you can get inspired about food, learn about nutritional benefits that come from sustainable agriculture as well as educate yourself on how to compost, why rotational grazing of farm animals helps our environment, how to cultivate herbs for medicinal and culinary use, and even how to shear wool.
Last week I took a visit to the Center - my first since last December and what I found was inspiring and majestic (told through the slide show at the top of this page). Below is a short introduction to this wonderful organization and I hope you get a chance to either see their website, stop in when you visit the New York area, or simply incorporate some of its values into your home garden, your cooking routine, or within your community, city or state.
INTRODUCING STONE BARNS
Stone Barns sits on about 80 acres of land that once belonged to the Rockefeller family estate in the Hudson Valley. The center is a partnership with Chef Dan Barber's Blue Hill Farm and restaurants whose menu reflects what is being planted on the farm. Through this collaboration of farm, restaurants and education, the idea of "farm to fork" is manifested.
The Center helps scientists, teachers, researchers (blight proof tomatoes are being tested right now in the greenhouse), parents, educators and the public in general by opening its doors to a place where we can touch, taste and see how the food that nourishes us is meant to be grown. Through one simple visit, this place embeds a sense of consciousness about what we put in our mouths.
Not only does the Center offer tours and lectures for adults, it also has a dedicated calendar for children's programs giving elementary, middle and high school students a unique opportunity to experience what happens on a working farm, from planting seeds, to harvesting, to livestock production.
There is also a focus on the future. The Center believes that the future of our health and livelihood depend on the future health of our soil. So preparing the next generation of stewards of our land is paramount. Through their Center's Growing Farmers Initiative, designed to increase the number of small and mid-size farms, Stone Barns offers paid, full-time apprenticeships to aspiring young farmers.
As an ongoing collaboration, Stone Barns is involved in the development of a Foodshed Study headed up by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. The project seeks to create a diversified, local (within 100-200 mile radius) food economy whereby growers of healthy food from regional farms would be provided special access to New York City food markets and other retail outlets, including farmers' markets.
With goals and programs like these, Stone Barns is one of the epicenters for change in the health and food system of America today. It's a model to be replicated I truly hope you can swing a visit sometime in the near - you won't regret it!
--Healthy food starts on a healthy farm.
--Good eating habits start on a healthy farm.
--The sustainability of our food system and our planet starts on a healthy farm.
*Special thanks goes out to Irene Hamburger and Erica Helms!