“The places I felt that we would get really lasting conservation were the places where the local people were deeply connected to the land and relied on it for their livelihood,” says Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. People like watermen working in Chesapeake Bay, foresters in Maine and farmers in the Midwest are investing in the land the most. And as a result, they are most invested in its conservation. But Jill—and the Stone Barns Center more broadly—are focused on engaging not just the usual suspects, but people across geographic areas, occupations and interests.
“Could you more effectively get people to care about protecting place and conservation and biodiversity if you tried to talk about it through food?” wondered Jill and her colleagues. The answer they came up with was simple: Yes. Everyone has to eat, after all.
“We try to make the campus a welcoming place for dialogue about the kind of food future that we all should be shaping together,” Jill continues, describing the program they have created for high school students to get them thinking about food, agriculture, conservation and the myriad other important—and interconnected—issues we face today.
Today, Jill uses the depth and breadth of her varied past experiences to forge partnerships among farmers, engineers, policy makers, chefs, conservationists, educators and others. These valuable connections further Stone Barns’ mission of bringing about a system of agriculture and a way of eating that reflects and values ecological health, strong communities and the integrity of place, region and season.
From discussions of cultural food traditions, to cooking classes to agriculture gardening and more, the Stone Barns Center is a place where people can connect with the land, learn about agriculture and experience conservation first-hand. Listen to the full episode at the link above, on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts—and don’t forget to subscribe!
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Jill Isenbarger of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture
Air Date: June 4, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Welcome, Jill.
JILL ISENBARGER: Thank you.
AOC: So, Jill, before coming to Stone Barns you were the chief of staff at The Nature Conservancy. You also worked with U.S. Senator Carl Levin and you worked also at Harvard University, and you’ve had a deep interest in conservation work. Tell us about how you ended up at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
JI: So I spent the majority of my career working on kind of classic environmental conservation for The Nature Conservancy, which is an organization that’s focused on biodiversity conservation. And during my tenure there, there were a couple of things that I worked on that kind of led me to food and agriculture. One was just watching local land stewards work and observing them. One thing that I learned was that the places where I felt that we would really get lasting conservation were the places where the local people were deeply connected to the land and relied on it for their livelihoods. So it might have been watermen in the Chesapeake Bay, foresters in Maine, farmers in the Midwest. And I was really kind of intellectually curious and curious from a human anthropological standpoint in learning more about one of those communities. So I liked that local and deep connection to land and to place and valuing of place that I saw from those people who I was so fortunate to work with.
And then the second thing was I spent a lot of time at The Nature Conservancy working on marketing. And so much of what we talked about when we tried to get people to care about conservation was abstract. So it was climate change, it was ocean pollution—so things that to many people felt kind of far away.
AOC: Very big, big ideas. Right?
JI: Yeah, big, big problems, and they didn’t feel personally connected. And so an idea started to form for me, which was: Could you more effectively get people to care about protecting place and conservation and biodiversity if you tried to talk about it through food? And so I just became super excited about working at a place where I could think about those connections. How do you use the conversation of food to drive emotional connection to place?
AOC: Now, Stone Barns is a nonprofit organization, and Stone Barns is really about creating a healthy and sustainable food system. How does Stone Barns go about doing such a thing?
JI: So we’re really trying to ignite a conversation with people across the country and in our backyard about how we can build a sustainable food system together. And we do that through many different programs here. One is we work extensively with young farmers through our Growing Farmers Initiative. So we have a deep interest in working with and training young people who are interested in regenerative agriculture, or agriculture that really puts land stewardship kind of at the forefront of the choices you make about methods and relationships and how you farm.
We convene people, so we have the great fortune of having an incredibly beautiful campus, and we’re able to bring people together to talk about all kinds of subjects that are vital to the food system. So in the last year we had a group of people here talking about the grass-fed beef market in the United States. We have 300 young farmers here every December. We’ve had engineers and very experienced farmers here talking about how they can use technological innovations and tools to develop new tools for small and midsized agriculture. We’ve had people visiting, talking to us about grains and institutional foods. So we really try to make the campus a welcoming place for dialogue about the kind of food future that we all should be shaping together.
AOC: Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about the campus of Stone Barns?
JI: Yeah, so we’re in the Hudson River Valley. We’re 30 miles north of the George Washington Bridge in New York City, so it’s actually a very unusual place, because it’s a very urban environment. So we’re kind of in the peri-urban landscape, and we sit within 30 miles of 30 million people. So we have kind of an extraordinary opportunity to get a lot of people to come here and spend time on the campus, which has a working four-season farm—animal, vegetable, mineral—so a diversified system where all of those components work together. We have an award-winning partner and restaurant that also resides on campus, the Blue Hill at Stone Barns. And then we have a variety of buildings where we can host people for conversation about food.
AOC: Yeah, so a pretty extensive setup and access to a lot of people that you can bring into this conversation.
JI: Yeah, absolutely. And we feel really privileged and lucky to get to do that. And we learn so much from the people who come to visit us and to share with our staff and to talk to each other.
AOC: And one of the initiatives that you have is the education program with high school students and young farmers. And you’ve talked already a little bit about how that’s one of your key focuses. Can you tell us about that program?
JI: Sure! Five or six years ago we were doing quite a bit of work with students, grades K through 8. And we stepped back from that work and really looked at what other organizations were doing and what kinds of opportunities there were for children to engage with food and farming—so school gardens, curriculum in schools, school lunch. And there was actually quite a bit of inspirational and incredible activity in the K through 8 space. So we started to think about whether or not our efforts might be more unique at the high school level.
So we’ve developed a semester-long high school curriculum, and it focuses really on three big ideas. One is about food and culture, one is about food and the environment, and one is about food and power. So one example would be, in the food and culture unit, students get to explore the idea of food taboos. And anthropologist Marvin Harris talks about how food taboos grew from environmental dictates and tells the story of the sacred cow in India and Jewish traditions around eating pork. And so I feel like the class really takes high school students deep into conversation in a way that they can start to regard food as a carrier of meaning that deserves greater thought and discussion. And our hope is that if we’re talking to these young adults and get them excited about the subject, they’ll carry that into their life and throughout their life and think about it as they’re making food choices.
AOC: So when you’re talking to high school students, is this curriculum designed for more like the ninth/tenth graders or the eleventh/twelfth graders? Where do you meet people?
JI: The majority of the students are eleventh and twelfth graders. We have some tenth graders, but probably later in their high school career. The curriculum is quite sophisticated, so a lot of students take it as a science lab; some people it’s a language arts course. So it’s, I think the best audience are the older students.
AOC: Yeah, right, that makes sense to me. So talk a little bit about that third section, that food and power. What happens in that area?
JI: I mean, it’s an exploration of how various interests in the food system maybe make choices that have effects on all of us. So one particularly fun to hear students talk about is school lunch. And the focus of the school lunch section is really about government power, and how our government makes choices that affect every kid in public school in America. And it’s so terrific to hear students get into discussions about the fact that 15 percent of U.S. households are food insecure, and have debates about should school lunch be free and available to all students? Should it only be for high-need students? So they start to really develop an understanding about governments as a source of power.
And then there are several other units in that section, so they learn a little bit about corporate power and power as an individual to make choice. But it’s really cool to see them come to life and to realize that they can influence some of these powers in a way that could shape a future that perhaps leads to a more desirable school lunch.
AOC: Yeah, I’m glad that section is in there. Do you find that there’s a lot of surprise about the way food is managed in our country?
JI: Yes. Yeah, I mean, students for the most part have no idea. It depends on where we’re teaching. We work with a lot of urban students, so there’s kind of an equal amount of surprise in the unit about growing—you know, how food is grown, where it’s grown. We have them dissect processed foods and really think about, wow, a Twinkie’s bad, and whatever, but it came from corn, or it came from an ingredient that came straight out of the ground and then all these steps happened to turn it into this food-like substance that I eat. And they dissect their favorite snack like they would dissect a frog in a biology lab, and take it all the way back to nature.
AOC: Well, yeah, I applaud this effort. It’s something to know we don’t always teach the right things in high school. And learning to understand your food and where it comes from and the choices you have around it is pretty deep, worthy, information.
JI: Yeah, I think it gets at another hallmark of Stone Barns, which is, we’re very interested in the idea of cross-disciplinary conversations. So if we’re trying to solve a problem about needing a small tractor that has a very short turning radius, we’ve found the most productive conversations are when you have the engineer who designs lawnmowers and wheelchairs, and five farmers who use this, and a technologist who’s making the motherboards for controls on a ship.
So, the high school programs are really cool because we’ve been able to bring together teachers or academicians from language arts, from health class, from vocational schools that teach butchery, from the science lab. And I think that that’s helped us shape a curriculum that’s really interesting and provides all kinds of different inroads for students with different interests to come into the conversation about food.
AOC: Yeah. Jill, what is, kind of, one of the biggest challenges you face in this curriculum with these young people as they’re learning about food? What comes up again and again while you’re teaching this curriculum?
JI: That’s a great question. For me, one of the observations I’ve made is that food is very personal, and high school students aren’t always willing to be vulnerable, for reasons that are understandable. And just for them to be able to really speak openly—like in the unit about food and culture, there are a couple exercises they do about cooking traditions in their families. And the teachers who we have here, I think, do an exceptional job at getting students to really open up and share some really personal information about kind of their culture at home. And there’s both pride and shame tied into what we eat.
And so I like it that I see this class able to kind of break those emotions down. But I think it’s challenging for students sometimes to feel like they can be totally honest about how they’ve shaped their eating habits or how people in their community have.
AOC: Yeah, it is incredibly sensitive. You know, you start talking about how people eat and what some sense of right or wrong is around food, and it gets really touchy really fast.
JI: Mm-hmm, yep, it does. And I think that the teachers and the curriculum, there’s a lot of language in it about no judgment. We don’t want this to be…this is really like a learning and sharing context. But creating a container where everyone feels comfortable is definitely a challenge, but I commend the educators who are doing that. I think they’re doing a great job.
AOC: You know, I love high school students. I think they’re some of the most engaging people. But in my experience, that sensitivity continues into adulthood. We just all have a lot invested in our food and our choices and what we, you know, our history and the ways that we do things around food.
JI: Yep. And I think anyone who’s a mom or friends of a mom or has a mom understands that feeling of maybe I’m going to be judged about what I’m feeding my children.
AOC: So one of the things that Stone Barns has done is put together this book, Letters to a Young Farmer. Talk about that effort, and what was the impetus for that project?
JI: So a lot of people come to me and say, “You need to do a book about Stone Barns.” And I understand why—we have a little gift shop here, and people come and they want to somehow remember their experience. But it’s just never felt like something that we would be excited about doing, like only being kind of introspective. But we have had a strong interest in doing a book.
And so, a couple years ago Martha Hodgkins—the book’s editor—and I were in my office talking. She was the communications director here at Stone Barns. And it was just after the Young Farmers Conference, and I said, “You know, we really need to find a way to capture the voices of the people who are at this conference. There are amazing people, young and old, and some of these voices in 20 years may not be around, and they have something important to say that I think is really inspirational to young farmers.” And so, the idea kind of came out of that annual event, which just creates this incredible feeling of goodwill and excitement about agriculture. And we wanted to find a way to capture some of the most interesting voices of our time and be helpful to young farmers, since that’s one of our signature programs here.
And we were also interested in trying to bring forward some voices that perhaps people hadn’t heard from or that maybe would get different and new audiences interested in the issues that we care so much about. So we have somebody like Barbara Kingsolver and we know, because of her great success as a fiction writer, there are people who will read anything she writes. And we have somebody like Nick Jammet, who is one of the cofounders of the Sweetgreen fast, casual restaurant, so a cool young entrepreneur. And there are a certain set of people who are interested in new food businesses, and his name and thoughts would attract them to this project.
So we tried to have some of the usual suspects, like Fred Kirschenmann, and Wes Jackson and Gary Nabhan, and also some new voices that we think have something really important to say to young farmers.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Jill Isenbarger. She’s the CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. We’re talking about their education programs, about their young farmer programs, and this book, Letters to a Young Farmer.
So, you say, Jill, that it was fun to put it together. Talk about some of that and what was fun about it.
JI: Yeah, I mean, it was just really incredible to deepen our relationships with many of the authors. So, you know, we talk a lot about agroecology at Stone Barns, and I think people’s mind immediately goes to farming methods: “Oh, these are people who are interested in farming and harmony with nature and building good soil and doing things in a way that’s important to water quality.” And all of those things are a core part of agroecology and interest. But one of the things that we spend less time talking about are relationships, and that kind of community and the relationships you build to support any kind of agriculture are really, really critical. And I think if you read about theory around agroecology, one of the things you learn is that community and relationships are also very essential to the kind of agricultural system that we think is so important.
And this book was actually a really beautiful way for us to form some new relationships in our community and deepen some that we’ve had for a long time, and to invigorate new conversations about kind of tough issues we may have to wrestle with in the future or spiritual ideas that could support young farmers. I love, like, Raj Patel’s essay which is really about how do we think about land ownership in this country, and what does that mean for future farmers? And there’s a line that says something like there was no property in land before conquest. Humans and their management of land were one animal among many. So just this idea about all life on Earth being equal. So that’s a really big idea and a really complicated topic—land tenure and land ownership for young farmers. So it was really great to be in a conversation with Raj about those issues.
AOC: Yeah, that’s really neat. I mean, it’s not only a big idea and a big concept, but it’s also a very pressing everyday issue for young farmers, right? Where am I going to find the land to farm? How am I going to stay on there? Yeah, where the big ideas and the practical realities meet.
JI: I mean, we hear about it all the time. Just the cost of land is really prohibitive for a lot of these young folks who want to start a business.
AOC: I know you must run into this idea, but people just, you know, they really don’t have an interest in food. They like to eat, they go to the grocery store, but days are busy and life moves fast. And how the food system is or isn’t, isn’t really something that they’re thinking about. How do you engage people who haven’t really delved into these ideas in the past or really understand the complexities that their choices support?
JI: That’s a great question. I feel like it’s one we’re always thinking about. That’s one of the strategic challenges that all of us who care deeply about this issue face. A couple things we do here: one is we’re really lucky that the place that we’re in is actually very beautiful as a natural environment. We’re kind of nestled in a state park preserve in New York State. And so we’re able to get a lot of people to our campus who maybe are coming for more of a parklike experience or a hiking experience. They just want to get out of the city and be close to nature. And then they’re kind of captive—we’ve got ’em.
So they’re in a place that—I call it the “aesthetic rapture”—they’re in a place and they just kind of get in this different frame of mind, because they’re outside, it’s beautiful, there are animals, there are flowers. And we’re able to talk to them, even sometimes in a very light way, talk to them about something that’s going on here. And I think that the staff here—in particular the staff who work here on the weekends—have created these mini, these experiences where you can just pop into the Dooryard Garden and there’s somebody on a bike that has a blender attached and they’re making carrot-top pesto and talking about food waste.
And I think that what we try to do is really create an experience and a feeling that people want to repeat. So they’re making some kind of emotional connection, and it may take a couple more steps to get to an intellectual connection that makes them care about food. But we start to lure them in. So it’s just that experience of being in a place. So that’s one thing we do.
And then the other thing is we’ve been experimenting with different kind of program interventions. And one of those experiments has been with students in medical school. So we’ve found that some people who maybe aren’t interested in kind of the geeky way we are about the food system or farming, maybe another way in is that they really care about their health. And so we’ve found that there’s a whole other constituency that’s interested—you can get interested in food because they’re health nuts. And there’s a lot of talk about the human microbiome and the soil microbiome. And I feel like people have always kind of intuitively understood that food and health are related, but it seems like there’s a deeper conversation going on now about the way your food is grown. Maybe it’s more or less nutritious depending on the soil it’s grown in.
So I think there’s an opportunity for us to get kind of that next ring of supporters by hooking into the health issues and talking with health insurance companies, and really trying to get on board with some of this more creative thinking that’s going on, and wellness care instead of disease care.
AOC: You know, I wanted to ask you, Jill, about the Stone Barns Fellowship Program. Can you tell us about that? I know it’s with women this year. I think you’re a couple years in, right?
JI: Yeah, this is our second cohort of fellows, and they come to Stone Barns for the month of July and spend time learning about, really—this summer it’s kind of three big ideas. There are really two things at Stone Barns that we spend a lot of time talking about. One is agroecology, or this idea of farming in harmony with nature. One is an idea we called farm-driven cuisine, which is we can ask farmers to farm in a more sustainable, ecologically friendly way, but they have to grow things to keep the soil healthy and the water healthy that no one will eat, it will never work. So one of the ways we engage with Blue Hill is they take everything we grow to keep this landscape healthy and make it extremely delicious.
So just the conversation about, kind of, the pattern of eating in our culture and how better agriculture has to be mirrored by better food and really delicious. The only way we’re going to be able to support better agriculture is by making the things you need to grow extremely delicious. So those two ideas we spend a lot of time, in the kitchen, on the farm, talking about.
And then this year, we’re layering climate change into the conversation, in part because some of the fellows that we talked to and some of the candidates we met with are very interested in that as an issue. But the ideas we’ve drawn, so nine exceptional women from different fields—so we’ve have a journalist, we have a salmon fisherwoman, we have a farmer, we have a chef, we have a doctor. And the idea is that we’re creating a platform for them to have an exchange about the work they’re doing on food in their own communities and to understand what others are doing, and that through this cross-disciplinary and creative environment, they’ll be able to advance their own leadership work and food systems work when they leave.
AOC: What does a typical day look like? What kinds of things are you doing?
JI: There really—there’s no typical, but I’ll give you a few examples. Every day is a little bit different, kind of looking at those three subject areas. So a few examples of experiences they’ll have: There’s a woman in California named Wendy Millet, who is working on soil conservation through ranching and trying to spread that across a million acres of ranchland in California. So she’s going to come spend half a day talking about her kind of leadership opportunities and challenges as a women working in a space that is largely dominated by men, and also talk about kind of the science of her work and climate change. They’re going to have opportunities to cook with young stagiaires or young chefs who work at Blue Hill who are here for the summer from points all around the world. And they’ll do that by selecting ingredients that are growing on the farm right now and then kind of learning to create a dinner with no recipe, based on those ingredients that are here before them.
We have some journalists coming who are going to facilitate seminars about climate change and food waste, climate change and entrepreneurship. We have someone coming from IDEO who’s going to do a workshop for them on design thinking. We have a woman from the MIT Innovation Lab who’s going to talk about innovation and food business.
It’s really just trying to give them a set of experiences that pull from people and then that work that Stone Barns has built, that will be helpful to them as they continue their work. We believe they’re all going to be—and some of them already are—extremely influential people in food systems change.
AOC: Well, Jill Isenbarger from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, thank you so much for joining us today. If our listeners would like to learn more about Stone Barns and the projects you’re working on, where should they go?
AOC: Thank you for being here with us.
JI: Thank you so much, it was fun to talk to you.
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