“This isn’t a joke,” police told the Daily Voice, a hyperlocal news site in Westchester County, New York, on August 30, 2018. “We really are helping the restaurant and farm staff try to capture the cow.” A half-ton steer had escaped from the grounds of the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, and it was roaming the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, a sprawling, 1,700-acre public park in upstate New York. County police sent a helicopter to aid the search, but a day later, the Daily Voice reported, “Loose Bull Still On Run In Westchester.” The story of a fancy cow on the lam was seized on by the New York Post, which delighted in noting “a bull has bolted” from the “world famous” farm connected to “famed eatery” Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
Those reports got a number of things wrong, starting with referring to the steer as a bull. (A steer has been neutered.) The animal had been on the loose for six weeks, not two days, with the police helicopter pursuit capping a chaotic search that had previously been undertaken by nervous farm apprentices fruitlessly combing the woods. And it was also not a singular event, but the final episode of a multipronged cattle escape that began with a stampede in a public park where Westchester residents walk their dogs.
The macabre denouement also failed to make the papers: When the lost steer was finally located, a police marksman shot it, and Stone Barns staff butchered it in the woods. First responders who helped put down the cow were offered the meat for free, while, once the carcass had been processed, Stone Barns staff were able to purchase it at a discount. Later that fall, with remains lingering in the farm’s freezer, a large cut from its hindquarters was served at a staff event. “It was an animal that had been stressed and it was just not as good,” says Sam Schmidt, one of the staffers who prepared the meal and wished the farm had disposed of the cow some other way. “It would have been better to let that dark series of events be over.”
Former Stone Barns staffers say that this story, played for comedy in a New York City tabloid, was not an isolated instance of bad luck, but a mishap that reflected mismanagement at perhaps the most influential nonprofit farm in America. Former apprentices and employees say they faced working conditions they considered unsafe, while numerous former livestock employees describe what they view as unnecessary animal suffering within Stone Barns’ holistic land management system. Multiple former female employees also allege that the farm’s nearly all-male leadership created a sexist environment in the livestock program, culminating in a 2019 letter-writing campaign to Stone Barns leadership and the resignation of two employees in protest.
In the course of reporting this story, I’ve spoken with more than 20 sources. Because of the pervasive influence of the Rockefeller family and Stone Barns in the relatively small world of sustainable agriculture, a number of people who spoke for this story did not wish to be identified. Pseudonyms are denoted with asterisks. Repeated requests to speak directly with the leadership of Stone Barns were denied; all statements on behalf of the organization and its leadership came through a spokesperson.
The “Stone Barns” in Blue Hill at Stone Barns — the on-premises Michelin-starred restaurant led by chef Dan Barber — is a foundational component of the restaurant’s reputation as the pinnacle of farm-to-table cooking. Stone Barns has been repeatedly hailed as one of the most innovative and important working farms today in part because of the oft-touted relationship between its farmers and Blue Hill’s chefs, as well as the farm’s work on experimental crops, resilient agriculture, and natural land management. The organization claims to have popularized kale, the virtuous 2010s green of choice, and its aims are to change how we eat and farm on a national scale far beyond introducing a superstar vegetable or two.
Farming is inherently tough, dirty, and unpredictable work, but many of the people who spoke for this story say they arrived at Stone Barns expecting to learn from a leading light of the regenerative farming movement, and instead found themselves shocked by the level of dysfunction they encountered. The stakes go beyond Stone Barns’ bucolic grounds: Breakdowns at one of the best-resourced, highest-profile nonprofits in regenerative agriculture potentially cast a pall over the larger movement — especially given that multiple employees say that these failures result from the management of farm director Jack Algiere, a champion of holistic land management — at a moment when reckoning with the costs of industrial agriculture has never been more urgent.
Stone Barns disputed virtually all of these allegations. “At a time when our food system is in such crisis, and atrocious agricultural practices wreak havoc on our climate, diet, animal welfare, human health and social equity, it is deeply disappointing that Eater would spend its energy trying to smear an organization that has dedicated two decades to innovative solutions and a thriving food culture,” it said.
The Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture opened in 2004 on 80 acres of rolling hills and verdant forest that were once part of the extensive Rockefeller family holdings in the hamlet of Pocantico Hills, New York. Built with $30 million in funding from David Rockefeller, the onetime head of Chase Manhattan Bank and grandson of Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, the nonprofit sought to “revive a commitment to community based farming practices that are now found mainly in small pockets of rural America.”
The heart of Stone Barns is its farm, which fulfills multiple purposes: It’s a working four-season farm that grows produce and raises livestock for its CSA (rebranded last year as a “farm share”), on-site store, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and until 2020, other restaurants and farmers markets. It’s a test bed for new crops, agriculture research, and ecological farming practices. It’s also a training ground for the next generation of farmers that has for years attracted young, idealistic staffers who are passionate about growing food and believe that the right agricultural practices could help save the world.
The farm is run by Jack Algiere, who was hired as the center’s first employee in 2003. Looking the part of what one former apprentice calls the “farmer hero,” he has served as the weathered, handsome face of Stone Barns, whether in the pages of O, The Oprah Magazine or hanging out with Martha Stewart. Over his first 10 years at Stone Barns, he built a flourishing, 10-acre organic vegetable farm using compost and rotational planting to feed the soil. Partly through his efforts in improving soil health, Stone Barns established itself as one of the shining lights of the regenerative agriculture movement.
“Regenerative agriculture” is a notoriously slippery term, but Stone Barns defines it as “a generalized term for agricultural approaches that prioritize the health and vitality of soil, ecosystems, plants, livestock, wildlife, and ultimately farmers and communities.” There’s a heavy emphasis on natural processes, whether it’s allowing plants that discourage pests to grow near valuable crops or pasturing animals in ways that benefit them and the land, like clearing vegetation with goats or using grazing cows to stomp organic matter back into the soil. In the rush to address industrial agriculture’s massive climate impact, regenerative practices have become almost trendy, despite the fact that some are thousands of years old. (Indigenous advocates have pointed out focusing on the “natural” illogically leaves humans out of the equation.)
Algiere became director of the entire farm in 2015, after the departure of his counterpart, founding livestock director Craig Haney, who had developed a multispecies livestock program to revitalize and manage roughly 30 acres of pasture on the grounds. The livestock program that Algiere inherited included thousands of animals, with pigs, sheep, and goats, as well as a poultry operation with chickens, geese, and turkeys — all part of larger symbiotic system designed to foster a virtuous cycle of rich soil, healthy animals, diverse crops, and delicious meat and eggs. Algiere’s approach to holistic land management has been influenced by other regenerative operations, which reject the controlling logic of feedlots, chicken cages, and other industrial livestock practices in favor of encouraging animals to live as naturally as possible, both in their diet and behaviors.
In 2016, Fiona Harrar arrived at Stone Barns as its new livestock manager, overseeing the animals and managing the team of employees and apprentices who cared for them. A no-nonsense farmer who had spent 15 years working everywhere from small nonprofit farms to large, conventional dairies, she had been recruited to help introduce cattle to Stone Barns as it prepared to vastly expand the amount of pasture it managed, which would require introducing more animals and carefully rebalancing its interlocking regenerative system. She was the only woman overseeing an agricultural department on the farm, and she took enormous pride in mentoring other woman farmers.
Harrar quickly became dismayed by how little autonomy she felt she had under Algiere, despite her title and years of expertise. She says that the cattle program she had ostensibly been brought in to develop proceeded largely without her input, and even routine duties she believed were usually overseen by a livestock manager, like choosing which feed to order, were out of her hands. (“This is untrue,” a spokesperson for Stone Barns and Algiere said. “The Livestock Manager is responsible for submitting an animal welfare plan to the Farm Director.”)
During a hot spell one summer, Harrar asked Algiere if she could dig a wallow for the roughly 30 pigs the farm managed in a large woodland enclosure. “Pigs don’t sweat naturally, and in the heat of the summer, you have to offer them a wallow,” she says. Algiere denied the request, she says, and she feared that if she dug one anyway, she would be fired. “We ended up having to treat all the piglets with antibiotics because they got really sick,” she told me.
Siri Gossman, a livestock apprentice under Harrar, believes that Algiere was not easily swayed by arguments about animal welfare. “He saw them as a tool, not a being,” she says, echoing a view that multiple former farmers conveyed to me about how Algiere sees the relationship between the land and livestock. “There was this assumption that if we managed the animals correctly, they would get all the minerals and nutrients they needed from the land, but that’s not necessarily true.”
“We prioritize animal health and landscape health equally,” Stone Barns said in a statement. “While we provide [animal] care with minimal inputs — such as kelp supplements and additional organic feed stocks — we look to the development of our soils and the health of the ecosystems the animals are immersed in to perpetuate their health.”
Regarding the pigs, Stone Barns said that they “always have shade shelter and/or forest cover,” as well as an open-basin water tank that they “commonly used as a bath or wallow.” It also said, “Our hands-off approach allows the animals to establish these environments at their own will. We do not discourage or deny any animal’s habits. The link to any needed treatment of animals because of lack of a healthy living environment is false.”
Harrar says that she never shook the feeling that Algiere ignored her guidance and overruled her decisions in a way that wasn’t true of the men in management. “In management meetings, we had a vegetable manager and a compost manager — they were both guys — and Jack would give them time to throw around ideas and take them seriously, but I never felt included in that little circle,” she says. “I got along well with my [male] assistant manager, but it was very obvious Jack liked him better and would talk to him instead of me about things.”
“It is unfortunate that this employee felt this way, but we do not agree with her characterization of the situation,” Stone Barns said. “As the Farm Director, Jack supervised and was a mentor for the entire farm team, and had relationships with each of them individually.”
The alleged treatment felt conspicuous to Harrar because in 15 years of livestock farming — which, like kitchens, is a heavily male field, known for its macho culture — she had worked almost exclusively under male managers, most of whom “became mentors and were nothing but respectful to me,” she later wrote in a letter to Stone Barns leadership. “Stone Barns is the first farm where I encountered overt discrimination and sexism in the work place.”
Sam Schmidt, a livestock assistant who worked under Harrar, agrees that the farm at Stone Barns could feel like a boys club with Algiere at the center, especially because Algiere tended to hire and cultivate largely male talent from the ranks of former apprentices. “You have this paternalistic dynamic amongst young men working for a guy who’s a farm celebrity,” Schmidt says. “There was a sense of looking up to Jack and not questioning him.”
In December 2017, Algiere asked Harrar to meet him alone at the farm on a Sunday afternoon and fired her. “Basically he looked at me and said, ‘You and I can’t get along so I’m going to have to let you go,’ something to that effect,” Harrar alleges.
Stone Barns and Algiere denied this version of events. “The representation of the hiring practices and hyper-masculine culture are untrue… Several men and women have been hired as full time farmers after finishing apprentice terms,” a spokesperson for both Stone Barns and Algiere said. “We cannot and will not comment on specific employment issues, but the retelling of how people were fired and why is untrue.”
Former staffers say the culture issues also negatively affected the farm’s mission to train the next generation of farmers. It brought in a small group of early-career farming apprentices each year for a nine-month fellowship. The most prestigious program of its kind in organic and regenerative farming — several former apprentices described it as the equivalent of an Ivy League degree — it also offered some of the best pay of any farming apprenticeship in the country, amounting to roughly $2,500 a month.
Jessica Farrenkopf, a former food services worker, applied to the program in part because female mentors in the livestock world are hard to find, and she hoped to work with Harrar, whom she’d met while working as a volunteer at Stone Barns in 2017. She says that Harrar’s firing was a “red flag,” but accepted an offer to become an apprentice for the 2018 season.
Farrenkopf started that March, and she says that almost immediately, her gut feeling proved correct. Apprentices largely performed farm chores under the supervision of Algiere and the Stone Barns permanent staff — weeding, harvesting, cleaning out pens, feeding animals — while the mostly male managers seemed to have little interest in education or mentorship, multiple former staffers say. (“We strongly dispute this allegation,” Stone Barns said. “Farm managers and directors were fully engaged in developing the apprentices; with education as one of the pillars of our mission, the farm was intensely focused on providing training opportunities for new farmers.”)
Among the rank-and-file of the livestock team, Farrenkopf alleges, there was a hyper-masculine, bro-y culture. During her first week, the apprentices were taken to a barn by staff, who shut the doors behind them. “They gave us all pitchforks and shovels and said, ‘All right, you gotta kill all the rats in here,’” she says.
Mercilessly exterminating rodents is a necessary if gruesome aspect of farming, but presenting it as a bonding activity struck Farrenkopf as a form of hazing. Schmidt, who had been one of the employees egging on the apprentices at the time, now says he believes this was a mistake. “Looking back on it, you don’t necessarily need to have applied explicit pressure for people to have trouble saying, ‘I am not comfortable doing this,’” he says.
Stone Barns denied the existence of a hyper-masculine culture on the livestock team, and said that the rat-killing event was “not sport as was implied but a necessary procedure to maintain sanitary conditions and mitigate crop loss and biosecurity risks associated with rodents on the farm.”
Throughout the 2018 season, apprentices say they experienced an unspoken pressure to engage in work they found uncomfortable or unsafe. Several say that they were repeatedly asked to ride on the back of large tractor-driven tools to weigh them down. As one tool, called a bed shaper, churned behind a tractor, the person crouching on the tiny platform risked falling into the implement’s maw, or being hit by any rocks it churned up. Some saw the risk as part of life on a small farm; others were appalled. “The first [apprentice] program I did, tractor safety was drilled in,” says Michael Passalacqua, a 2018 apprentice who’d done a certificate program through the University of Vermont. “I don’t want to lose a hand, I like all my digits, thank you.”
“The decision to weigh down the bed shaper in order to get better coverage at the bed edge was made by the farm crew themselves (including the apprentices), using their own resourcefulness to solve a problem,” Stone Barns said in a statement. “It is no less safe than, say, driving a tractor or using any number of tools that a farmer is called upon to use every day.”
That same year, Stone Barns re-roofed its half-acre greenhouse, one of the flagship features of the farm. Algiere came up to the roof occasionally to demonstrate how to install new plastic sheeting, but multiple apprentices say that he largely left them to their own devices. One of those apprentices, Allie (who requested her last name not be used), says much of her and her colleagues’ time was spent standing on the roof’s skinny metal struts more than 20 feet in the air, with no harness or safety equipment. “I had a splitting headache from being so high in the air and being scared and nauseous,” she says. “You’re on a metal tightrope.”
Allie and several other apprentices, including Farrenkopf, called a meeting in the greenhouse to discuss the safety issues with Algiere, his wife Shannon — who, as the apprentice program manager, acted as a liaison between apprentices and management — and several other managers. “Jack said to me, ‘If you’re going to be a farmer, you need to be able to do this kind of thing,’” Allie says. But she didn’t expect to work on a greenhouse anything like Stone Barns’ again. “This greenhouse cost multiple millions to build, and I’ve reskinned other greenhouses. You do it from the ground.”
Stone Barns said that Algiere was not quoted accurately, and insisted the procedure was safe. “The process to replace the greenhouse roof was taught to us by the greenhouse supplier and is the same protocol followed on thousands of acres of greenhouse roofs across this country,” a spokesperson said. “No injuries have ever been reported at Stone Barns for this operation and no one has ever been coerced into roof work against their will.” (The spokesperson also characterized the power lift used to raise people up and down from the roof as safety equipment.)
At the end of the season, despite her growing disillusionment, Farrenkopf accepted a job with the livestock program. She still believed in Stone Barns’ ambitions around regenerative farming, and was hopeful about her new boss, a recently hired assistant livestock manager who was also a woman. “I was holding onto this hope that it could actually fulfill its mission,” she says. “I stayed on and it got even worse.”
Throughout the 2019 season, Farrenkopf says that she repeatedly complained about the behavior of a male colleague she alleges was verbally abusive to other staff and physically rough with animals, but she believed that he was continually allowed to slide by the male managers. (“We cannot comment on specific employee issues nor could we have, at the time, disclosed any HR actions to other employees,” Stone Barns said.) In September, she was called into a meeting where she says she was confronted by Algiere about her attempts to seek accountability for cultural issues within the livestock program, and her struggles with his leadership. (“Jack characterizes it as a very supportive conversation for someone who was struggling in their role,” Stone Barns said.)
Within weeks of that meeting, Farrenkopf and her female manager submitted their resignations, though they agreed to finish out the farm season for an additional payment. (It is highly unusual in the agricultural world for farmers to leave a farm before the end of a season.) During an all-staff meeting in the aftermath, then-executive director Lauren Yarmuth — who had previously consulted with Stone Barns about its culture, and had stepped into the executive role that month — declared that “women’s voices not being heard at the farm is an issue we need to work on.”
Stone Barns leadership asked Farrenkopf to describe in writing why she felt she had to leave. She was joined by multiple other former staffers, including Siri Gossman and Fiona Harrar, who wrote that, in their opinion, many of the farm’s issues, especially on the livestock team, stemmed directly from Algiere’s management and the culture he fostered. “I have no choice but to leave because we have been put down and unheard all year and at this point there is no end in sight,” Farrenkopf wrote. “It is a sexist, unrewarding, toxic, and stressful environment to work in.”
“We believe any allegations of sexism to be false, but they were appropriately investigated by leadership at the time,” Stone Barns said in a statement. “The Center has had strong female leadership throughout its history. Since its opening in 2004, the staff of the Center as a whole, as well as the farm team specifically, has been majority female.” (The farm’s director-level leadership is currently all-male.)
In addition to allegations of sexism, these letters criticized Algiere’s top-down management style more broadly, and described recurring cycles of staff burnout and overwork, especially with the labor-intensive methods and tools that Stone Barns employs and advocates for small farms. The staff burnout was worsened, former employees allege, by a sudden and dramatic growth in the farm’s acreage, and the new management burden introduced as a result.
In June 2018, Stone Barns began managing roughly 350 acres of pasture in the Rockefeller State Park Preserve with a “multi-species intensive grazing program,” more than 10 times the acreage it previously managed with animals. As part of its expanded remit, it launched a program to replace meat chickens with ducks to restore soil fertility, and began its long-planned addition of cattle to the farm. Both initiatives suffered from issues, according to a number of former apprentices and employees.
The ducks lived in three large mobile huts so that they could be moved around the pasture, with drinkers fed via gravity system that, in the height of summer, frequently delivered scalding water superheated by its long black hose, according to former apprentices who were uncomfortable with the ducks’ living conditions. Workers began hauling cool water out to the ducks, but the pasture was on the far end of the land Stone Barns managed and there wasn’t enough staff to go out more than once a day. (Other former employees I spoke with say the ducks’ living conditions were typical, even exceptional, for farmed ducks.)
Meanwhile, Blue Hill at Stone Barns — which intently emphasizes how closely it works with the farm — rarely took more than half of the 150 ducks that Stone Barns slaughtered each week; the rest piled up in a freezer, waiting to be sold at the farm store. Long after it was clear the ducks were not selling, the same number of ducklings kept arriving from California. Schmidt, the former livestock assistant, estimates that within a year, the freezer contained $125,000 worth of duck. Another former employee estimated that of the 4,000 ducks slaughtered over the course of the season, 1,600 were left in the freezer. Apprentices started sneaking them home for dinner.
“The pastured duck program was an innovative and productive experiment,” Stone Barns said. “Their health and productivity was exceptional.” It also noted that “meat can be frozen for two years,” and it commonly “stockpile[s] products to sell in other seasons.” In 2019, as Stone Barns expanded its whole-animal butchery operations, it ended the duck program.
New cattle started arriving at Stone Barns shortly after it began managing the Rockefeller Preserve grasslands in June 2018. When one of the delivered herds was older, larger, and rowdier than expected, Algiere initially refused to accept the full-grown cows, but eventually agreed to hold them.
On July 12, 2018, according to a former employee, the cows were set to be moved to a different pasture. Rather than transport them in a trailer, Algiere decided to have the unruly, previously handled cows walked down one of the park’s carriage roads — which lacked any wire or fencing to guide their path. When the gate of their enclosure was opened, the cattle took off into the woods.
This was the true beginning of the cattle escape — roughly six weeks before the initial press coverage. Multiple livestock employees were called in to chase the cows on foot and in small vehicles. Most of the animals were quickly brought under control, but the final three weren’t wrangled until the next morning.
A day later, two of the cows escaped again. They remained on the loose for weeks as staff and apprentices combed the woods and chased down reported sightings. One of the steers eventually returned to the herd on its own accord, but the other remained elusive; at one point, it spooked the carriage horses of the caretaker of one of the Rockefeller homes, nearly tipping the carriage, which had a property caretaker’s family, including a baby, inside. Nearly two months after the initial escape, the last rogue steer was tracked down, outside of the lands Stone Barns managed. As noted, the local police got involved, and at that point, the steer’s disappearance made it to the New York Post.
After a police officer shot the lost cow with a rifle and staff broke it down in the woods, the remains were then put in the Stone Barns cooler alongside other carcasses intended for the restaurant and farm store; eventually it was stored in the farm’s freezer, at which point Algiere made his offer to staff to buy the meat at a discount, according to several former staffers who were troubled by it.
Regarding the cattle escape, Stone Barns said that “attempting to link [it] with allegedly poor livestock management or unwise fencing choices is in our opinion a spurious argument.” It continued, “This incident was an anomaly resulting from a mistaken delivery of cattle. Nothing remotely like it happened before or has happened since.” It also said that “celebrating the life of this animal by using the meat rather than throwing it away is completely consistent with our whole-animal butchery practices and no-waste philosophy.”
In 2019, according to former employees, issues continued to plague Stone Barns’ cattle management. For a period of time in spring, Stone Barns managed 110 heads of cattle — nearly quadruple what it had begun managing the prior summer. Moving the animals from pasture to pasture was a grueling, all-day, and sometimes dangerous event, multiple former staff and apprentices say. One livestock apprentice, Layne Anderson, was working alongside then-livestock director Mike Peterson to push a steer into the cattle chute — a tall, narrow pen designed to hold a single cow — when another animal entered it right behind them, trapping them both. “I was lucky Mike is big and it was a fairly small animal, so he could shove it out of the way,” she told me. “If it had just been me I would have been squished.”
In the wake of these mishaps and the letter-writing campaign that fall, Algiere’s role at the farm remained unchanged — in fact, between the departure of Yarmuth in April 2020 and the hiring of a new executive director in May 2021, much of Stone Barns’ day-to-day was de facto overseen by Algiere, former staffers say. According to current and former employees, the livestock program remained troubled under his holistic approach to management. (“The day-to-day operations were run by a leadership group that included Board members,” Stone Barns said.)
The farm’s apprenticeship program was fully phased out in 2021, and its staffing shifted to being entirely composed of employees. That summer, hot, wet conditions led to a bad pest year, and around a dozen sheep out of 170 suffered from a particularly gruesome affliction known as flystrike; three died. One former farm employee, Cameron*, says they discovered a sheep unable to get up in the field who, when her wool was cut away, was covered in maggots from her shoulder down to her back legs on one side. “In all my time farming, nothing was as emotionally challenging as seeing an animal shaking in pain while the entire right side of her body is being eaten as she’s still conscious,” they say.
Flystrike, which occurs when a fly lays eggs in a sheep’s wool, can be prevented with chemical dips, but Algiere forbade them to keep the farm 100 percent organic. It can also be addressed with frequent shearing, or the wound could have been cleaned out if caught early, but the farmers were only able to check the sheep once a day, and kept missing the early indicators. The pandemic had demanded long hours, and in 2021, members of the livestock team kept quitting, stretching their team thinner and thinner. Livestock farmers who were concerned about the sheep say Algiere did not seem receptive to their concerns, and they felt powerless to push back. “In a conversation where we were bringing up concerns about animals and what they need, Jack said that his priority and our priority should be the land,” a former farmer, Skyler*, says.
“Jack did not — and would not — tell anyone on his team to prioritize the land over the animals,” a spokesperson for Stone Barns said (emphasis theirs). “Jack’s role as Farm Director is to hear the concerns of his team, and to make the best decision possible in the moment – in concert with his senior leadership and informed by his own decades of experience managing the health of animals while stewarding the land.”
Stone Barns also disputed that the flystrike outbreak was related to any management issues on the farm. “Although our Livestock team works closely with every animal, every day of the year, mistakes in oversight by under-experienced farmers can quickly escalate.” They continued, “Animals die, despite our best efforts. Crops fail. The climate warms, causing a host of new issues every year. This does not mean that poor practices were in play.”
The farmers who spoke for this story agreed that loss and death were a normal part of farming, even if they were difficult. But they say not all loss on a farm is normal. “What’s not normal is suggesting solutions for some of the preventable deaths and having those solutions turned around on us,” Skyler says. “Jack insists on pursuing a program that highlights how Stone Barns Center is being radical and groundbreaking when actually those decisions are not working for the welfare of the livestock. Being asked on a daily basis to care for animals in a way that I know to be less than what they deserve feels like a betrayal of who I am as a farmer, and I feel like that is what Stone Barns Center is asking of me and of my team in order to further their public image.”
A few nights before Blue Hill at Stone Barns’ October 2021 reopening — the restaurant had closed in March 2020 and hosted a guest chef dinner series from January to September 2021 — farm staff received last-minute invitations to dine at the restaurant with members of the Stone Barns board. The enthusiasm was so great that the farm’s leadership gave up their seats so that all of the rank-and-file could experience a dinner at Blue Hill, the restaurant they constantly heard celebrated their work, but where they could not afford to dine. After a day of working in the fields, the farmers changed out of their muddy clothes and put on the outfits they’d brought to walk up the hill to dinner.
The meal was often delicious, but the tableside stories didn’t delight the farmers as they do many other guests. “On the farm side I was feeling disillusioned with the whole place,” Cameron says. “Seeing this very polished, compelling, beautiful presentation diners receive, versus knowing the reality of what the life of being a farmer there is like, it was upsetting how unrepresentative it was.” Denver*, another farmer who attended the dinner, says they spent the meal explaining to their table’s assigned guest how many ingredients weren’t from Stone Barns. (Between October 2021 and April 2022, roughly 91 percent of the restaurant’s meat and produce was locally sourced, and around 26 percent of it came from Stone Barns, according to the restaurant.)
Skyler says the disconnect between Blue Hill and Stone Barns’ message about supporting farmers, and their actual experience farming there, makes them wonder who the story is really for. “People think they’re spending money to support some sort of amazing vision or system. Like, I see an email with a button that says, ‘Donate to our work so we can catalyze an ecological food culture,’ and apparently I’m supposed to be a beneficiary of this work,” they say. “This story is so emphasized, and it seems awfully strange that the narrative is built in a certain way that doesn’t ring true to those of us who are actually working there.”
Stone Barns said that it was “not aware of any dissatisfaction among the farmers who attended the dinner.” In a statement, a spokesperson for Blue Hill noted, “Any disappointment would … be wholly unwarranted since we had invited them to a free, dry-run dinner that was not intended to celebrate Stone Barns or ‘accurately represent their work.’” They also stated that “more than 75 percent of [the courses] featured Stone Barns product.”
The farmers who were alienated by the dinner at Blue Hill say it was especially disappointing because beginning in 2020, the restaurant and the nonprofit were working more closely together than ever. They were under the impression that their work in the fields was part of the larger mission of the restaurant and nonprofit to persuade people to support more, and more sustainable, farms. But to these farmers, the restaurant didn’t reflect their work, so how could it help inspire people to support them in any meaningful way? Instead of solving the problems of top-down leadership by a single man, this next phase of Stone Barns appeared to be built around the vision of another: the chef and co-owner of the acclaimed on-site restaurant, Dan Barber.
For 15 years, the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture tried to fix the food system by educating children and producing new farmers. Now, its mission is linked more than ever to fine dining destination Blue Hill at Stone Barns and a famous chef’s vision for trickle-down change.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s senior correspondent.
Kailey Whitman is an illustrator and designer. She likes to draw, drink coffee, and go outside, sometimes all at once.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler and Jasmine Liu