Statistically speaking, very few of us will have the privilege of dining at one of the exclusive restaurants featured on the captivating Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” which highlights celebrated chefs around the globe.
By sheer luck of the draw, however, Reedy River Farms farmer Sarah Maxwell not only got to dine at one – Blue Hill at Stone Barns featured on season one, episode two – but she also recently spent four days immersed in the environment of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., learning from the top farmers, chefs, scientists, and activists in her industry.
It was likely a once-in-a-lifetime educational excursion that will inform the continued growth of the urban farm started by George DuBose and Chris Miller in 2015. Maxwell, who had no prior experience in agriculture, joined the effort a few months later as a way of volunteering and giving back to the community, and she immediately fell in love with it. Miller has since left to start his own urban farming business, That Garden Guy.
On Dec. 5, Maxwell flew to New York for the Young Farmers Conference held at the Hudson Valley educational center. Led by CEO Jill Isenbarger and farm director Jack Algiere, who work closely with chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill, the center has become the gold standard of farming practices in the farm-to-table restaurant movement.
Maxwell’s inclusion in the conference was by lottery – every application had the same chance of winning a spot. She hadn’t even told DuBose she was applying because she thought there was no chance she’d actually get in after entering only her email address and a few facts about herself. But then she did.
Once that reality set in, Maxwell chose classes to attend, many of them based on DuBose’s recommendations and some to satisfy her own curiosity. Among those were a class on cut flowers — something she plans to dabble in — a class on balancing a landscape to promote honeybee health, a slow tools course where she learned that large power tools are not always necessary, whole-grain bread baking instruction in the famous Blue Hill kitchen using centuries-old starters, and a how-to on planning for profit.
To combat the information overload, since even meals were accompanied by some discussion or presentation, Maxwell took copious notes she continues to reference.
But before the first keynote began, the conference unofficially opened just after many of the farmers had arrived from Germany, the Midwest, and the majority from the New England and Mid-Atlantic Regions, with a dinner in a former hayloft of an old barn that was unlike anything Maxwell had ever experienced.
“It literally looked like Hogwarts,” she says.
She describes a scene with rustic wooden community tables stretching across the room set for 400 people. Candles and ambient lighting set the mood. The tables were covered in banana leaves, and there was not one table setting. It was a hand-pick dinner, which meant the guests were to serve one another and eat using only their hands to transfer each bite from the table to their mouths.
The dinner was prepared by critically acclaimed global nomadic chef Yana Gilbuena, a 2017 Stone Barns Exchange Fellow, originally from the Philippines. Gilbuena started the Salo Project, which hosts Filipino Kamayan dinners, in which food is served on communal tables decked with banana leaves, and guests are asked to eat with their hands.
“It was the best five-course meal I’ve ever had,” Maxwell says.
The next morning, the conference officially kicked off, and Maxwell found herself immersed for three days in a community of farmers and advocates, who by the end of the week felt more like family than strangers she’d just met. It also reinforced farming practices DuBose was already using in Reedy River Farms’ now-three locations, and further impressed on Maxwell the importance of the relationship between farmer and consumer.
“The relationship with the local community is so crucial if we’re going to convince [people] our future is in farming,” she says.
Those relationships extend to local chefs who partner with the farm to grow specific crops they need to run their restaurants, such as Husk, The Anchorage, and Golden Brown & Delicious.
“The conference opened my eyes to the network and ‘family’ that is farming,” she says. “Working together and creating a relationship is going to take us far in this venture.”