Q&A with Jack Algiere, Four Season Farm Director
Can you tell us about the Four Season Farm at Stone Barns Center, and the work you do there?
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture works to improve the way America eats and farms. We do this through innovative education programs, public awareness campaigns and training of the next generation of young farmers who are a part of our Growing Farmers Initiative. Our growing operation entails a 6 acre vegetable field and a 22,000 square-foot in-ground greenhouse. We also think about our Center as a laboratory—enhancing our work by combining old wisdom and new techniques and technology. Farming within a non-profit setting at Stone Barns Center allows me and other farmers to amplify our message. We can all benefit from a deeper appreciation of agriculture, regardless of our lifestyles. Central to that work is our focus on the soil as the land’s generator of life, storehouse of nutrition and collector of water. Better care and understanding of our soils is at the core of a sustainable and resilient system.
Given the theme for this issue, what would you say you have Inherited that has led you to your work?
I believe that my impulse to farm came from caring deeply for the Earth. My parents raised me on a homestead farm on the outskirts of town in Southern Rhode Island. Growing up working alongside my mother and father in the barn and gardens helped me to develop different skill sets than those of many of my peers. My memory of the farm is of cold morning chores, lone hours in the woods, loose cows, wild dogs, chicks by the kitchen stove and the constant repair of farm equipment. The farm was far enough from town that, by the time I was in high school, I yearned for social activity. To my surprise and profound confusion, I encountered the unfathomable reasoning and complexities of a fast food culture. I realized that farm-life had sheltered me, in a good way. My perceived isolation transformed into a wellspring of belonging and purpose. I am confident that my parents had hoped for this, planning it as an intended consequence.
Can you talk about your interpretation of Inherit from both your professional perspective and from your point of view as a parent? How do these two perspectives align for you?
The choice to become a small-scale diversified farmer came directly from an impulse to protect a disappearing inheritance. Over the past century, we have lost an entire fabric of wisdom and diversity in our agricultural landscape through the adoption of a new kind of diverse lifestyle. Generally speaking, our culture, environment, interest and purpose have shifted away from generating agrarian wisdom. However, without the relationship to the land, we continue to forget the depth of our connection and lose the ability to respond proficiently to our ecosystem.
The spark that transformed my interest was that point of reconnection. Just as the feeling of love brings a sense of wholeness, it was obvious that I had recognized my path. Originally, this was with selfish reasoning but it steadily grew into reasons connected to my family and to the greater community. I continue to recognize how a farm’s presence enriches community. The presence of the healthy and productive activity in any community expands beyond its place.
The development of Stone Barns Center over a decade ago is a testament to the desire to reconnect our culture to the land and food, which are inseparable. We have inherited the Earth collectively, all of its potential and all of its circumstance. I am confident that every one of us has a desire to belong, and each of us makes meaning from our environment and personal interpretation of it. This impulse has led to great civilizations. We search for a particular harmony as a species just as all other beings of this Earth long to perpetuate their kind. However, are we interested in collective harmony with the rest of this living planet? One can only hope we have this instinct deep in our collective inheritance.
Let’s talk about that for a moment, the earth we have inherited, and what we are passing on to the next generation. In what ways do you work with what you were handed, and how do you try to improve and change this inheritance?
As 21st century farmers, we have inherited a deep history of change as well as cultural growth of an industrialized world. Increasing awareness of our impact on the planet and of the imbalanced use of resources is a significant difference that exists in this generation. This greater call for action may potentially validate a reunion with our agro-ecological inheritance. We see this arising within the next generation through our Growing Farmers Initiative, in our apprentice program and our annual Young Farmers Conference held every December.
As a parent, I understand that our two sons carry on vast amounts of genetic material developed as far back as can be imagined from both their mother and me. Somehow, this new combination is distinctly their own. As parents and fellow humans, we have tried to consciously provide as best an environment and opportunity as we can realize. However, it is clear that our paths are not entirely predictable. Their response to individual experiences will provide authentic meaning. We embrace our differences and yet still share so much of the same inheritance. This is epigenetics as expressed in all living things.
I have heard you describe the farm as outwardly facing. I was taken with this description of your thinking about your work there. You describe it as a responsibility to help pass on the skills and knowledge you and the Center possess to the next generation of farmers. Can you speak to this for us?
The sustainability of our agricultural system is critical. It may not be enough to farm in the backwaters of rural America to contribute to an unemotional and underestimated necessity we call a food system. Reconnection begins with personal relationships to the land, to each other and to our meals. It requires intimacy, interaction and curiosity. This is why farming within communities means so much to me. I feel validated for my contribution and included in the social round. This encouragement leads to increasing collective confidence and commitment.
It gives me hope to see so many different demographics realizing that the debate about food, agriculture and ecology is nonpartisan. I do not separate these topics from each other and consider this common necessity to be our most basic inheritance. The development of Stone Barns as a place-based agricultural education center allows us to share information and relationships central to our food system through practical, hands-on experiences. We see over 150,000 public visitors each year and offer classes and workshops in manner of food and farming related topics from growing to cooking. We offer school programs to more than 10,000 children each year, providing an interactive experience in field and kitchen. Of the school children we reach, 25% of them are here on scholarship—Stone Barns Center raises the funds to provide the programming and transportation. Our farm camp connects hundreds of children each summer to the seasonal activities and enjoyment of the small farm community.
What do you see as the major challenges that this generation of farmers is facing and how do you think they can best tackle these challenges?
Over the past two decades, I have seen a generation of young people (20s and 30s), hungry for a more substantial point of impact in their communities, a sense of being and contribution. I have seen a greater desire for mentorship and the wisdom of elders to guide their process. I see a culture choosing new and hybridized lifestyles, embracing the wisdom of nature alongside their capacity to welcome technology. It is an educated and connected era faced with the greatest potential ecological breakdowns in known history.
Our young farmer-training program supports the growing interest of a new generation of farmers through a seasonal apprentice program focused on developing comprehensive skills required for continuing as a small-scale farmer today. We also provide outreach to those farmers who are currently engaged in their own farms or apprenticeships by offering onsite professional workshops and an annual Young Farmers Conference, bringing together a generation of like-minded young agrarians.
Another focus that I find is very valuable for farmers to understand is their connection to seeds and breeding. The industrial influence of Agribusiness has diminished the diversity of our seed supply to critical levels. The corporatized ownership of the vast majority of our collective seed stock by a handful of companies combined with restrictive genetic patenting laws has considerably reduced the number of small seed companies and available selection. Worse yet, the number of public crop breeding programs throughout our Land Grant Universities has plummeted. This body of knowledge and genetic diversity is further weakened by the lack of interest and understanding from the public sector. It is the role of small and mid sized farmers to share this concern and the opportunities that exist to correct the problem with their customers and community. At Stone Barns, we work collaboratively with several seed companies as well as Cornell University Plant Breeding to test and evaluate crop varieties that can reinvigorate our farms and improve our capacity to produce better tasting, healthier and more adaptable varieties for our scales of agriculture.
Lastly, the era of maintaining a fleet of greasy and leaking old machinery is also coming to an end. While it is valuable to share the wisdom in the care and maintenance inherent in mechanics, it will do us good to look forward to a cleaner and simpler workshop. As an entire generation of young people who are adept with virtual and plug and play technology, we have begun to design and implement tools into our systems that can help to improve communication and sales, organization, analysis and efficiency. As the small and mid scale farms expand onto the landscape again, we can expect to see more interest in electric, solar and precision tools that will improve productivity while greatly reducing the use of fossil fuels. As other industries improve their practices to reduce ecological impact and increase efficiency, their technologies will increasingly be integrated into small-scale agricultural applications. Working with this new generation of farmers sheds light on a new and hopeful perspective of eco-agricultural integration.
What do you think of as being the needs, challenges, and greatest hopes for the next generation who will grow up and inherit your work?
My hope for my children is that they follow their hearts and have the opportunity to apply their deep sense of care and service to the planet. I am confident that their appreciation and understanding of a productive relationship with nature will guide them towards positive change. I hope that this next generation of farmers, ecologists, distributors, journalists, chefs, educators, doctors and engineers (to name a few) will be valued for their dedicated contribution to the ecological health and security of the communities they serve.
All photos courtesy of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture