I recently had the privilege of meeting David Rockefeller. At the venerable age of 90 he is the last living son of John D. Rockefeller Jr, the business magnate who set the standards for philanthropic activity in the United States. He is amazing, displaying an enviable physique for his age and an intellectual curiosity many forty-year olds could be proud of.
I met him because he has two main interests: art (entering his office in the Rockefeller Center is almost like entering the Louvre) and, of particular interest for me, sustainability. For example, among the many positions he holds and activities he performs, he is also on the board of the Rockefellers Brothers Fund, which promotes a sustainable development program and makes grants of over 20 million dollars a year.
Following a comprehensive visit, I was especially impressed by Stone Barns, the model farm he created in 1996, which lies a hundred kilometers or so north of New York in the Hudson River Valley. The origins of the farm go back to the end of the nineteenth century, when the founder of the dynasty and David’s grandfather John D. Rockefeller senior, wanted a country estate to farm dairy cows, as he wanted to drink fresh milk from the cows every morning.
Since then, when David spent his summers in the country, the place had risked going downhill if it hadn’t been for the efforts of David’s late wife Peggy, a great lover of agricultural life and the countryside, who revived Stone Barns.
In 1996, as a tribute to his wife, David wanted to give the family farm a new lease of life and made it into an example of sustainable farming and high quality produce, in contrast to the prevailing emphasis in the American rural sector, which leaves much to be desired in this respect.
It is a joy to visit the attractive buildings at Stone Barns and the surrounding fields, the greenhouse covering half an acre producing excellent organic vegetables all year round, the barns and sheds immersed in a relaxed rural environment. It is not just a philanthropic venture however but has been planned to be fully profitable while respecting all the criteria of sustainability.
Everything is recycled — so much compost is produced that it cannot all be utilized at the farm and they are ‘forced’ to sell it. The vast range of produce covers all types of vegetable and the main traditional breeds of farm animal.
The fruit of this work, which employs a large number of young farm workers with great vision for the future, is sold to seventy families who have joined the Community Supported Agriculture project (payment is made in advance for a year’s supply and home deliveries are made on a weekly or monthly basis according to the season), at farmers’ markets or is mainly used at the farm’s two restaurants. Both restaurants are called Blue Hill, with one on site and the other in Manhattan. Altogether the two Blue Hills serve 1500 guests a day, always providing food based on completely traceable fresh products, and prepared under the guidance of the young talented chef Dan Barber.
The project functions wonderfully — it is a prototype which should definitely be replicated, and not only in the United States. This association between farm, restaurant, the public and young farm workers, with its focus on sustainability and quality, is an extremely modern production model, which is profitable and multifunctional. It shows that this approach can work and there is a real alternative to traditional agribusiness on an industrial scale.
The variety of functions covered in Stone Barns includes a massive educational program involving visits and courses for young people and adults (particularly school children and teachers) who come from nearby New York to find out more about the food they eat, how animals are farmed, how crops are grown and how important it is to respect environmental sustainability. For example, when I was there a few weeks ago, lunch in the restaurant was accompanied by the joyful shouts of a group of young people doing planned activities during their week at a farm rather than a summer camp.
Stone Barns is a model that should definitely be studied, imported and put on an organized basis here in Italy. It demonstrates that that there are alternative ways for us to defend our traditional agriculture and great culinary heritage.
First printed in La Stampa on August 10 2005