Family Fun and Sustainable Farming at Stone Barns Center

photo by Kyle Rabin

Several weeks ago my family took a Sunday drive to Stone Barns Center, a non-profit farm and education center committed to creating “a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits us all.” Stone Barns is an 80-acre farm tucked away in the rolling hills of Westchester County, New York and lies at the heart of a new food revolution.

Given its location – in Pocantico Hills – the Center can boast that it is within 30 miles of 30 million people, and it draws an impressive 100,000 annual visitors. Since it opened in 2004, the Center has reached over 40,000 children through school and camp programs, and since 2008  has trained over 800 beginning farmers.

My family and I made the trip to Stone Barns because we had signed up for one of the hands-on activities.  While we were there, we took a quick tour of the livestock, gardens and greenhouses. My whole family had a great time, especially my two daughters who had a lot of fun mingling with chickens, sheep and pigs. My oldest daughter was reluctant to enter the chicken barn, perhaps intimidated by the multitude of gregarious fowl. (Our younger daughter showed no fear and dived right in.) Nonetheless, she learned some interesting facts. She now knows, for example, that you can determine the color of a hen’s eggs simply by looking at the coloring of a tiny feather by the hen’s eye.

The staff at Stone Barns work hard to:

  • Increase public awareness of healthy, seasonal and sustainable food;
  • Train farmers in resilient, restorative farming techniques;
  • Educate children about the sources of their food; and
  • Prepare children to steward the land that provides their food.

All of this works towards a more sustainable food system. What makes a food system sustainable? Many factors, but one component is that the system wisely manages its use of water and energy and embraces ecological practices that leave a smaller footprint on the earth without depleting resources for future generations.

Stone Barns has thought carefully about how to meet its energy demand in an environmentally-friendly manner. According to Compost Farm Manager Gregg Twehues, “We're looking into the opportunities on a larger scale, but we're already capturing heat from compost to heat the water that warms our seed propagation beds. We're experimenting with biochar as a soil amendment. The process of making biochar also creates heat that can be captured and used to replace propane or other fossil fuel-based energy sources. We're not capturing this heat yet, but we are looking into ways that this could be integrated into our greenhouse operations in the future.”

Stone Barns is equally thoughtful in how it handles the farm’s animal manure.  Twehues explained, “When our sheep and poultry are on pasture in the spring, summer and fall, their manure stays on the pasture to help fertilize and build resilient soil. Animal manures make up 80% of our premium compost products—we capture 100% of the animal manure from our farm and compost it along with fallen leaves and other materials. This becomes the garden primer that we use on our vegetables and that we sell to gardeners and landscapers.”

As director of GRACE’s water and energy programs I spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing the food, water and energy nexus. Of course this discussion follows me home as I try to integrate the connections into my family life, too. As troubling as the industrial food system can be, exploring alternative and sustainable systems is fun and delicious and we definitely plan on returning to Stone Barns Center.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE:

  • Stone Barns is open to the public year-round, Wednesday through Sunday, from 10am to 5pm.
  • Blue Hill at Stone Barns is a world-renowned restaurant situated on the Center’s property.
  • Stone Barns sells its vegetables, eggs, meat and honey to the public at an onsite farm market (three days per week) as well as to Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Blue Hill in New York City.
  • Check out the Stone Barns Center’s program calendar to find out about upcoming exciting events.
  • Another well-known sustainable Hudson Valley region farm is the Hawthorne Valley Farm.

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