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Published October 05, 2010, 10:59 AM

ND farmer heads Stone Barns

POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. — When first lady Michelle Obama decided to invite the spouses of government leaders attending the U.N. General Assembly to lunch, she chose the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a kind of experimental farm whose president is Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer from Windsor, N.D.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

POCANTICO HILLS, N.Y. — When first lady Michelle Obama decided to invite the spouses of government leaders attending the U.N. General Assembly to lunch, she chose the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a kind of experimental farm whose president is Fred Kirschenmann, an organic farmer from Windsor, N.D.

Located on an 80-acre farm owned by David Rockefeller, Stone Barns is an unusual combination of Norman-style stone farm buildings, 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, about 25 miles north of Manhattan because the family wanted fresh milk.

By the 1990s, the barns had fallen into disuse, but 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.

Other amenities

The Rockefellers included a restaurant on the farm, and Dan Barber, the chef-owner of the New York City restaurant Blue Hill, tried to open a country restaurant branch there.

Barber, who named his restaurant after his grandmother’s Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Mass., and studied at Tufts University near Boston, convinced the Rockefellers to seek the advice of Kathleen Merrigan, who helped write the national organic food law when she was an aide to then-Senate Agriculture Chairman Patrick Leahy from 1987 to 1992. She then was teaching at Tufts.

Merrigan, who is 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, for the center’s board. He later became president of the center.

Practical approach

Kirschenmann takes a practical approach, and today, Stone Barns grows all kinds of foods and raises some 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 of plastic greenhouses that allow the growing of vegetables in winter in harsh climates.

Stone Barns is not always politically correct and is definitely not a vegetarian establishment. Farmers there note that some birds naturally gorge in the fall, and they are experimenting with ways to make foie gras in a fashion that would be considered humane.

Under Merrigan’s direction, USDA programs now 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 their customers, and Merrigan has encouraged small and organic farmers all over the country to do the same.

Special guests

Barber, who prepared the meal with White House chefs, serves on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. He also cooked for the Obamas when they visited Blue Hill in New York on their famous date night in May 2009.

Over a lunch of chicken raised at Stone Barns and vegetables and herbs from her White House garden, Obama told her guests, “Stone Barns Center is so important. It is an example of what can be done with local businesses, local farms, and neighborhood schools, of the kind of energy that comes from children having a hands-on experience on the farm. And when they grow it and they touch it and they taste it, they believe in it more than anything that we could tell them.”

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 cliche of the enthusiasm of the wealthy and privileged for organic food, but Kirshenmann said in a telephone interview from Iowa, 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 says, “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.”

Kirschenmann, who travels frequently from Iowa or North Dakota to New York, added that, “I learned at Stone barns that the average consumer in New York City is much more ready to think about changes to the food system. In the heartland, the major producers are much more defensive because they have made such big investments.”

Kirschenmann said those investments make the resistance to the local and organic movement understandable and that advocates for it “have to be patient” with them.

Stable market

Kirschenmann said that the cities have become some of the most important supporters for small farmers because school systems, hospitals and other institutions as well as farmers’ markets and restaurants can provide a stable market for their production.

Neither Kirschenmann nor Merrigan was present at Stone Barns for Michelle Obama’s event. Kirschenmann said he had previous obligations, but was happy that Obama and her party will see the children’s education program and eat lunch. “I can’t imagine a better place for her to be,” he said.

Merrigan noted in an e-mail that her duties as deputy secretary have taken her to California recently, where she and her counterpart at the Environmental Protection Agency had visited about conservation projects on farms in the Central Valley and on to Kansas City, Mo., where she spoke Sept. 25 to the Agricultural Business Council.

Merrigan said, “I was (at Stone Barns) when it was run down, unused stone barns, and I was there for the private opening when it was completed,” but that after four days of business travel “I can’t wait to see the kids!”

Merrigan said he considers Barber, who has written extensively on food policy, “an intellectual, not satisfied with ‘simply’ being one of the world’s best chefs. He is thinking deeply about agriculture, nutrition, and consumer behavior.”