Meet Jack Algiere of Stone Barns
Come spring, Jack Algiere won’t have much time to talk; he’ll be too busy teaching apprentices and Farm Campers, and overseeing the hundreds of varieties of crops growing at Stone Barns, the now-famous farm and education center, home to Dan Barber’s Blue Hill. Right now, though, Jack is spending some quality time with his laptop, planning the season and attending to other business. He took some time out to share with us his philosophies on farming, ecology, life and happiness.
Tell me about what you do at Stone Barns — I understand that you wear many hats as the Four-Season Farm Manager.
My responsibilities at Stone Barns are diverse and fulfilling. In general, my role is to manage and care for the vegetative body of the farm. This includes the crop production in the greenhouses, fields, and other production areas. It also includes the native and formal landscapes. Caring for the farm as a whole in collaboration with the livestock and nutrient managers allows us to keep an eye on the entire property and manage it in the most responsible way.
In addition to managing these production areas, my role is to educate new farmers in each specialty area — greenhouse, herbs and flowers, field crops and land care. It is with this team of apprentices that we follow through with our mission to grow high quality produce and share the intricacies and challenges of the farm with the public. We provide a wealth of content for all the education and programs at the Center. This engages the apprentices and interns with the public and forces them to translate their work. This has been a great tool for learning on both sides.
How did you come to work at Stone Barns? What about Stone Barns makes it so special to you?
I spent many years following this thread, working on farms with my wife in Colorado and California and then returning to the east to recapture the memories of growing in the Northeast. Along the way, education has been the most instrumental tool to accompany the farming practices. Ecologically sound practices without compromise come with a supportive community. This is about when a friend and mentor came to me with this opportunity at Stone Barns. I arrived at the farm during the first stage of restoration and was responsible to put the agricultural and land care components into place. I saw a great challenge, one that was surprisingly well timed for me to accept. In the early engagement with the farm I was able to break virgin pasture and oversee the building of the greenhouse complex. It was a great chance to start from scratch.
On top of this challenge was the challenge of making a farm conducive to visitors and students, recognizing the difference between a public farm and one in the back woods. Stone Barns is outwardly facing, offering a story to explain each process we follow on the farm by the day, season or decade. This kind of public transparency is the most challenging aspect, as well as the most valuable to the community on and off the farm.
Stone Barns is a very unique community, offering a diversity of interconnected disciplines. I really do not know another place that combines these components so equally. The Center includes the Animal, Vegetable, Mineral components of the farm; a very active Program and Education department; a Farm Store; a Café and the staff to build and support a healthy nonprofit organization, including a motivated Executive Director and Board. The relationship to Blue Hill at Stone Barns is also an incredible collaboration, as they share the value of mission while existing as a separate entity from Stone Barns. Regardless of function, the entire body of directors meets regularly and makes decisions as a community.
Is Stone Barns certified organic?
The farm is not certified Organic. We made the decision from the start to be a catalyst for understanding ecological practices and the organic farming community. We recognize that certifications are very good for quality assurance off the farm, but they do not necessarily lead to answering consumers’ deeper questions. Answering “yes” when asked if a product is certified Organic often satisfies the customer who is asking. But answering “no” has allowed us to really dig into the question and get to the root of customers’ concerns about pesticides, environmental protection, fertilizers, animal welfare, energy efficiency and farming techniques. It is our philosophy that the environment supports the soil and the soil provides the foundation for healthy plants animals and people. Organic methods are very important for the future of agriculture. We will see changes to the meaning of the word over the next decade, but not to the core of the practices on farms where the method predates the definition.
What are some of the biggest challenges you come across in your work?
Managing a farm for efficiency and resilience is not the same as managing a farm to host educational activities all the time. Finding ways to adapt the production and make fun out of a tedious chore for program participants is a challenge. The best way to do this has been to create a procedural approach for almost all of the farm activities. The farmers are responsible for their own work efficiency once they learn a new procedure. When students come to the farm, the farmer becomes a facilitator and leads them through the process. This gives us two tracks to follow and in the end we can accomplish any task with similar accuracy.
I attended your tracking production seminar at the Young Farmers’ Conference — you’re a good teacher! Can you tell me a little bit about your involvement with the education center at Stone Barns?
I spend a lot of time weighing how I am going to develop each of the training ideas that I want to share with the apprentices and the public. As a not for profit, it is our mission to share our story with others and develop understanding of the issues surrounding the food system. It is essential that we provide information for the public because an empowered consumer makes choices that support healthy agriculture. The consumer develops their understanding, vocabulary, taste buds and peace of mind by communicating with the farmer. The farmer learns what the customer is really looking for. The farmer as a professional has long been excluded from the conversation about food. This has changed.
Tell me about the organic program you developed at White Gate Farm prior to coming to Stone Barns.
White Gate Farm is a lovely small farm estate in Connecticut, where my wife Shannon and I partnered with a couple of friends and their family to develop a working CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) on a beautiful old homestead. The transition of this farm from estate to working farm was a great inspiration for me and provided some insight into balancing aesthetics and functionality through a safe, accessible and productive operation.
Tell me about your major at the University of Rhode Island and your jobs leading up to Stone Barns.
I chose to attend URI for their Natural Resource Science program and quickly gravitated to Horticulture and Plant Science. While working at the greenhouse nursery, I had many questions about the industry and knew that I needed to focus my interest. Throughout my time at URI, I maintained my work in greenhouses and landscapes. Along the way, I was exposed to farmers and philosophers who strengthened my ethic, such as Sir Albert Howard, Rudolph Steiner, Masanobu Fukoaka, Eliot Coleman and many others. I was able to apply the education directly and I made a point to stay busy and challenge myself.
In my last years at the University, I began to focus on growing food crops and medicinal herbs. The social value of anything edible raises the awareness of the consumer well before flowers, trees and other non-edibles. I recognized that there are many aspects of the industrial standard that go entirely unnoticed by the consumer although they dictate the market. I saw many growers trying to please even the most uninformed customer and in turn compromising the potential of their operation and business model. The concept that the customer is always right is noble, but if someone wants red roses in January, from a local source, they might want to consider the repercussions of this demand. Since the demand for unseasonable things has grown, most all farmers and growers have gravitated to techniques which economically solve these problems in the short run without educating the customer about what might be a little more safe and appropriate for the season.
What are your biggest concerns about national and regional (New York) food policy?
Who is going to continue to farm and how interested will the public become concerning the significance of regional agricultural systems are my biggest concerns.
What are your hopes for changes or progress in food policy for 2011?
More people everyday are becoming inspired by what they are eating, and educated about how their community and environment are affected. Once these thoughts align, people can make more informed choices.
What in your upbringing led you to farm? Was farming something you always knew you wanted to do?
Growing up on a Rhode Island homestead gave me lots of time outside. Both of my parents have influenced my love for farming. All the wild and cultivated spaces played a part. I began playing drums and taking percussion lessons at five years old. I worked from the youngest legal age, mostly outdoors in parks or gardens. It was not until I began working at a local greenhouse nursery, that I recognized what path I wanted to pursue.
What keeps you optimistic about the future of farming?
Local food means environmental, social and economic security to me.
What does your typical day look like?
Right now it looks like a laptop. Most of the winter is spent planning, writing, reading, searching for seeds and developing the crop plan for the coming seasons. I also spend a lot of time with apprentices, going over techniques and plans. The other departments of the farm all require communication as well, so there is plenty of time around the board table. Otherwise, the snow is 18 inches deep and the walks are exhilarating.
During the warm season, there is more than enough to attend to. With a dozen apprentices focusing on a variety of disciplines, I have to be constantly available for guidance. I work with each of them throughout the day, keeping me deeply involved in the production and moving around the farm. Our summer Farm Camp and hundreds of visiting families keep the crew on their toes.
We grow several hundred different varieties of vegetables, herbs, flowers and fruit. This means maintaining a daily relationship with the farm; sharpening our senses, memories and problem solving skills to accomplish each task at hand; and translating our work into educational opportunities for the visiting public. This all takes time, patience and attention.
What advice can you offer young farmers who are struggling with the realities of such a tough career choice?
Farm because you love to farm. When I’m asked what my favorite plant is, I will say all plants. Farming is diverse and challenging work, so that is where it starts and ends. Any farmer must persevere the elements and the toiling. Being outside, working with the elements, producing healthy food, participating in environmental stewardship and being proud of yourself for taking on this challenge all help a young farmer continue forward.
Who are your heroes? Who inspires you?
All those people who have followed their inspiration and challenged the normal are my heroes. My parents and my sister have provided constant support and admiration. My wife, Shannon, and our two sons, Sedge and Ojiah, give me greater purpose to continue in this work. I admire all of my teachers — Bud Smith, Amigo Cantisano, Chris Nerone and others. These individuals inspired me to be independent.
You must be so busy — what do you do to relax? What do you do in your free time?
I do not have a TV. As a family, we hike, practice yoga, meditate, cook together, we eat together, we read, play instruments, sing and play. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is relaxing. The lifestyle flows in and out of the farm work. The home and work are not entirely separated for me. That is how I enjoy it.