Stone Barns: Farming in America’s Oldest Suburb
The tall pasture grass is still soaking wet with dew, and the air is warming fast under the mid-June sun. As I approach the first Egg Mobile, I can hear the clucking and wing-fluttering of 75 Amber White laying hens waiting to be released into the pasture. It feels like the coop could explode with their eagerness to get out as they anticipate my arrival.
The girls are restless. They’ve been, well, cooped up all night against the skunks, foxes, and hawks that would decimate their ranks if given a chance. Now they’re ready to burst out into the sun and grass, to peck for insects, to bathe in the dust, and—a few bold ones—to hop the low, moveable fence that surrounds their pasture and run loose on the farm.
I open the hatch on one side of the coop and with a swift motion pull the ramp into place onto the floor of the coop. The hens stream out, some flying, some running down the ramp. One flaps into my face, another bounces off my chest, and a third is already pecking at my shoelaces, mistaking them for worms. With most of the hens out picking at the grass, I climb the rickety ramp and enter the coop to top off the hopper with organic feed and refill the trough that holds the grit they need for proper digestion. The inside is dark and cool. Though there is manure everywhere it smells surprisingly clean.
Emerging into the light again myself, I begin to collect eggs. Separate hatches open on the straw-lined laying boxes where the hens lay. Each holds four or five eggs, more or less, and I place each carefully into a large, blue metal basket. A few of the boxes are occupied by hens, and I have to reach beneath their warm, feathery bodies, nudge them aside, and snatch the eggs they are sitting on. The variety of their responses is interesting: some are rather good-natured about it, walking off without a struggle; others cluck annoyedly; a few peck sharply at my hands to show their disapproval.
The same process is happening at the other Egg Mobiles lined up across the large front pasture. Maggie, John, Rich, and Christie are all releasing hens, topping off feeders, and gathering eggs. Already Chris is hooking up the first of the coops to the trailer hitch on one of the Kubotas, the all-purpose vehicles that we use on the farm, to move the coops 100 feet or so to fresh pasture. The grass in the pasture we’re in now is matted and thick with manure that will fertilize the grass, which will be lush pasture in just a few days’ time. We’ll put other animals, probably the sheep, on it then, in a process meant to mimic the process of a healthy natural ecosystem. In the meantime, our baskets now brimming with fresh, brown eggs, we head back to the Western Barn, which serves as a kind of headquarters. It’s 8:45, and there’s a lot to do: pigs to be watered and fed, sheep to be moved, and the brooder barn, with our growing chicks, to be attended to.
I’m not actually a farmer. I’m a college professor living in Westchester County, New York—America’s oldest suburb. I commute to work, teach classes, grade papers, and go to meetings; I drive my kids to soccer practice and music lessons; I go out to dinner with friends and watch a little
football on Sunday. It’s a life that most contemporary Americans can identify with—a good life, and an easy life, with no concern about where or how we get our next meal.
Turning Wheel Farm in Bowdoinham ME, owned by Cate Stoner. Cate grows the majority of her crops for local Food Pantries and the GSFB Mainers Feeding Mainers Program. ©Brendan Bullock
But once a week this summer, I have been volunteering at Stone Barns, an experimental farm a scant ten minutes from my suburban town. Built on land donated from the Rockefeller estate and named for the magnificent stone barns built on the property 100 years ago, the farm is working “to change the way America eats and farms.” With an emphasis on local, organic produce and pastured, humanely-raised livestock, Stone Barns serves local farmers’ markets and restaurants—including the gourmet Blue Hill at Stone Barns
on the property itself, where “fresh” and “local” take on a quite literal meaning. More importantly though, the farm, which is open to the public, serves as a model for bringing back local farms, a working experiment in post-industrial agriculture, and an incubator for young farmers eager to begin their own farms. I’m just a weekly volunteer, but the rest of the crew are either full-timers here at Stone Barns, or one-year apprentices who are hoping to begin their own farms or to learn about farming as a prelude to careers as diverse as chef and veterinarian. There are crews that work in the greenhouse, in the produce fields, in the farmers’ market—and a whole crew devoted to composting, which this farm has down to both an art and a science. I work with the livestock crew, helping to take care of chickens, pigs, sheep, and other animals.
Jay Robinson carries buckets of fertilizer at Sweetland Farm in Starks, ME. Jay has been producing food for Good Shepherd Food Bank since the beginning of the Mainers Feeding Mainers program.©Brendan Bullock
My own motives for this are frankly a little vague, even to me. In the 1940s my grandfather had a twelve-acre farm with produce, chickens, and pigs just outside the city of Baltimore. His was the kind of mixed, local farm—common in his day—that the new locavore movement is trying to bring back. My mother grew up there, and though he sold the farm in the decade before I was born, it always figured significantly in our family lore. I have always yearned—even as that kind of farming gave way to the Big Agriculture of the 1960s and beyond—to return to the land. With the trend toward sustainable agriculture, organic produce, and humanely-raised animals growing, I wanted to see first-hand how such a vision played out in a practical way. But most of all, I think, I wanted to be involved in the production of food, that most basic of life essentials—what Thoreau called the “gross necessaries”—in a way that nearly all individuals in our society have lost. I wanted to take on a sense of responsibility for what comes out of the earth and into my own body. That it means finishing each day on the farm speckled with mud and poop and blood I take as a mark of success, though unsurprisingly, no one wants to ride in my car.
Mid-mornings find us in the brooder barn, where the Stone Barns meat chickens begin their lives. The chickens are a pasture-raised breed called Freedom Rangers, and they’ll spend their short adult lives out on one of the farm’s pastures. But they’ll spend their early weeks as growing chicks in the large, spacious, and well-ventilated barn until they are ready to move outside. There are several hundred birds in here, grouped by age in open enclosures, and it’s a daily chore to keep them fed, watered, clean, and comfortable. A layer of fresh wood shavings goes on each enclosure to absorb odors and keep the barn as hygienic as possible. Each
enclosure has several troughs and hoppers of organic feed that need filling, and different sizes of grit, according to the age of the birds in each. Two waterers in each enclosure are rinsed clean and the large blue barrels supplying the waterers are topped off with fresh water. The long passageway in the center of the barn is swept clean and watered down, while a ventilation fan cools the barn and moves fresh air around.
On a Monday, four new boxes of day-old chicks have arrived at the farm, courtesy of the US Postal Service. The Postal Service has been delivering chicks this way for decades, taking advantage of the fact that day-old chicks who have just ingested their yolk can live without food and water, warming each other with their combined body heat. Only the USPS will deliver live birds—not UPS or FedEx—and I like the fact that there’s at least one item not available on Amazon.com. While others finish the barn chores, Maggie shows me how to take the baby chicks from the box and place them in the enclosure. With a deft motion and a firm but gentle touch, she lifts a chick from the box, dips its beak in water with a dilute solution of sugar, and watches as its tiny throat pulsates in swallowing. Once the chicks show they can swallow, they’re placed on a litter of fresh wood shavings. They’re surprisingly quick and lively as they run around the pen.
Maggie is far more knowledgeable and experienced than I, but she too is somewhat of an unlikely farmer. A former English teacher and a gifted poet, Maggie Schwed commutes to Stone Barns from Manhattan three days a week to work as a farm hand, a reverse commute that also runs counter to the ways factory farming has distanced us from the sources of our food. The author of a moving book of poems, Driving to the Bees, based on her experiences at Stone Barns, she is uniquely positioned to observe the intricacies of life on the farm. I expect her to speak of the pastoral beauty of the
landscape, but as we drive back from the barn after chores, she tells me that what impresses her most is the knowledge that farmers have, how much they have to know about animal physiology, pasture management, soil chemistry, zoonotic diseases, slaughtering and processing, composting—the list is endless. Under her wide straw hat in the hot June sun, this cultured and highly educated woman deeply admires the intellectual skill that farming requires along with the hard physical work.
Hannah Semler of Healthy Acadia gleans spinach at Four Season Farm, Harborside, ME. ©Brendan Bullock
One noon finds me feeding and watering pigs with John, a farm apprentice who embodies the new locavore movement. Born and raised in Queens, John Aghostino is refining his skills and knowledge of animal husbandry with the hope of starting a farm of his own, within a few hours of his native New York City. Apart from his interest in animals
and the land, he’s deeply interested in food preparation and food culture, as are all the farmers and apprentices at Stone Barns. His goal is to make a living for himself and his young family by humanely raising pastured chicken, pork, and lamb in a sustainable way for farmers’ markets, restaurants, and anyone else who is interested in delicious food raised in a sustainable and humane way on farms close to home. He’s also motivated to remain in the New York City foodshed. This is not an easy proposition. Marginal anywhere, the economics for small farms within a short drive of New York City are tough—the high cost of real estate, of course, being the chief obstacle. When I ask him if he would consider moving somewhere where land was cheaper and socio-economic conditions friendlier to small farmers, he shakes his head.
Samuel Cheeney of Salty Dog Farm in Milbridge, ME cultivates peas.©Brendan Bullock
“No, this is where I’m from—where my family is. Also, I want to help bring this kind of food, this way of growing food, back. It wouldn’t have the same meaning if I couldn’t do it here.”
What about some place like California, where the growing season is long?
He laughs. “I wouldn’t understand the seasons there. What I know are the seasons of the northeast—the rhythms of the weather and when things need to get done.”
John (who has gone on since I first began writing to start his own, Fatstock Farm, in Stuyvesant, NY) will be my mentor in my early days on the farm, showing me how to hitch up the trailer with the water tank, how to feed pigs without getting gored or trampled, how to stretch the long bundles of electrified fence we use to move sheep from one pasture to another. This last task goes to the heart of this kind of grass-based agriculture. With the goal of reproducing a healthy natural ecosystem, the sheep and cattle that we raise are moved from pasture to pasture on a rotating basis, just as herbivores in the wild would move on before munching the grass down to its roots. Meanwhile, their manure is a natural fertilizer that encourages grass to grow. The meat chickens or laying hens who come onto the pasture later peck at worms and insects in imitation of wild birds that would follow in the wake of animals such as bison. And so it goes with everything on the farm. The Berkshire pigs are kept in shady, wooded areas outdoors, where they can wallow in mud and forage for acorns that supplement their feed. The piglets live with their mothers and are kept separate from the large boors, like Don Juan, who has a prime spot all to himself. Heritage breed turkeys are moved in small flocks from pasture to pasture and brought in at night to keep them safe from predators. The key to this kind of farming is the use of portable electric fences that roll up in bundles and can be moved easily from place to place. In a matter of minutes a new fenced pasture can be created, and sheep or chickens can be moved to fresh grass. It’s a labor-intensive process and in many ways an inefficient one that sacrifices cost-cutting efficiency for sustainable use of resources and humane care of animals.
After several weeks at Stone Barns, I begin to get the rhythm of the chores and become more useful than cumbersome. Each week I am entrusted with new tasks. I feed and water the pigs on my own, which means driving a water tank on a trailer behind the Kubota around the farm to the shady spots where the pigs are corralled behind an electric wire. It also means getting into the muddy pen with three hungry sows and their young. The sows are a more than a little aggressive about their chow, and I can never get their feed into the big, rubber dish fast enough to avoid being knocked about and stepped on. Always I watch for their tusks, which though short could cut open a leg like a sharp knife. Once a pig gets loose in the brooder barn area and runs amok. John, Chris, and I take sheets of plywood and play matador with the pig, chasing it around with our “shields”; it takes 15 minutes of frenzied running back and forth before we corral it again.
One Tuesday, I help Dan slaughter the chickens. This is a task that I have been approaching with anticipation and a small amount of dread. On a practical level it’s a skill I would like to have, although I don’t believe the day will come when I’m forced to feed my family from animals we raise in the backyard. But on a deeper level, I’ve come to believe that those of us who eat meat should be willing to do the work of slaughtering and processing the animals we eat, to face the fact of animal death, to bear some of the karmic burden that killing animals for food surely entails. This is hard work, both emotionally and physically, and it’s no coincidence that in the industrial model of farming we have pawned off most of this kind of work on an underpaid and exploited immigrant labor force.
Dan Carr, who still looks like the college football player that he recently was, is a gentle soul who speaks softly, keeps bees, and will soon be going to Africa to teach bee-keeping techniques. Raised in Montana, he seems born to this kind of work. We begin by putting the chickens in crates, and
I’m struck by Dan’s gentle manner as he handles the birds, trying to minimize any sense of trauma or pain even in their last moments of life. I try to emulate his manner by staying calm, speaking softly, not making sudden moves.
Cate Stoner of Turning Wheel Farm in Bowdoinham is a single mother, and a one-woman farming operation. Here, she’s pictured planting carrot seeds with her dog, Anomi. Stoner leases her fields from a local landowner; her farm is off the grid, and runs on solar power. Last year she harvested seven tons of food for the Mainers Feeding Mainers program. ©Brendan Bullock
As we bring the crates into the slaughter room, I note how he keeps the chickens out of the sun and positions them so that they can’t see what is happening in the slaughter area. This consists of seven or eight metal cones lined up along a wall over a metal trough. Beside this is a machine, a scalder, that moves freshly-killed birds through a tub of hot water to loosen their feathers, and another that whirls the birds through rubber “fingers” that strip their feathers in seconds and deposit them into the next room, where they are quickly processed into what look like the product you would find in the supermarket—only far more delicious.
Dan shows me how it’s done. Six at a time, the chickens go head first into the cones. They are strangely calm, with their wings pressed gently to their bodies. Deftly and deliberately, Dan takes a sharp knife from his apron and quickly severs both arteries on either side of the windpipe. “Never cut into the windpipe itself,” he explains. “Don’t cut off the head—you want the chicken to bleed out so that blood doesn’t taint the meat.” As each chicken bleeds out, it goes into convulsions
Reflection, Sweetland Farm, Starks, ME. ©Brendan Bullock
for what is probably ten seconds—but seems a lot longer. And then they are motionless, limp, and obviously dead. There’s no getting around it—it’s messy and bloody. And though Dan has taken every care to minimize it, the birds obviously have at least a moment of stress.
Some larger humane poultry producers are beginning to use CO2 to render their chickens unconscious before slaughter to avoid even this level of stress, but I doubt whether producers on the scale of Stone Barns can afford such systems, which would mean keeping small farms like this from proliferating. And the scale of a farm like Stone Barns, which processes about 200 chickens a week, ensures that the animals are living virtually stress-free their entire lives. They live in clean brooder barns as chicks and on fresh grass as adults. They aren’t trucked to a slaughter-house or put into crates until the very hour before they’re slaughtered. Everyone is scrupulous about hygiene from the beginning to the end of the process.
I take the freshly killed birds and put them into the scalder, then into the plucker, which whisks them through a small door into the adjoining room, where they are quickly processed by other farmers. Everyone in the livestock operation at Stone Barns participates in this process, breaking down the layers of specialization that would occur in industrial farming. Christie cuts off the head and feet (the feet go into a clean container for a special customer who “likes chicken feet”—I don’t ask what for); Craig and Adrian quickly and expertly eviscerate them. They are cooled immediately and taken into an immaculately clean, refrigerated room where others vacuum seal them in plastic bags as whole chickens or chicken parts and then immediately refrigerate or freeze the bags. The birds go from chickens to “chicken” in less than an hour. Their lives in the pasture, their high-quality organic feed, their humane manner of death, and their careful handling make these chickens both sustainable and delicious. At the farm stand, I have heard customers rhapsodize these chickens, in hushed tones, as the best they have ever eaten.
After watching Dan several times, it becomes my turn. I feel remarkably calm as I take a bird from the crate and position it in the cone. The pressure to do this right—to give the bird the quick death it deserves, that I feel I owe it—somehow steadies my hand, and I quickly cut one artery, then the other. I get it perfect, and it’s over in seconds.
“Good job,” Dan tells me. “That was just right. Now keep going, because we have a long way to go.”
He’s right. Once the process begins, it’s crucial to keep going. Soon, I’m into a rhythm, and the two of us efficiently take turns slaughtering birds and moving them into the scalder and plucker. It feels efficient but never mechanized, and I can honestly say that the birds experience very minimal distress. Sooner than I would have thought, the crates are empty and the last plucked chicken has gone through the door into the processing room. As we clean up—a big job, and again, one that is scrupulously done—I have time to reflect. Do I feel a sense of remorse? I do—but only a little. I think that there should be some psychic cost to meat eating. But more than that, I feel that I have really participated for the first time in this process that has sustained me for over 40 years.
And indeed there is a cost to eating anything, from wildlife habitat lost to fields of soy and grain, to energy used to transport produce from grower to consumer. Like any other animal, we cannot subsist without taking other plant and animal life. We can only try to do so in a way that it is as humane and sustainable as possible—while also respecting and valuing human cultural customs around sharing food and allowing farmers to make a decent and honorable living.
By the end of the summer, I catalogue the various experiences that I’ve taken part in, none of which I had ever
imagined myself doing—or even, as a consumer of food, given much thought to. Beside the continuous feeding, watering, and moving of cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese, I’ve run across a dewy pasture with a bucket of alfalfa and 40 sheep and lambs running behind;
Jay Robinson plants squash at Sweet Land Farm in Starks, ME has has been producing food for Mainers Feeding Mainers program since it began, and says it accounts for about half his yearly sales. Jay believes that agriculture is a starting point for economic and environmental justice in general; he says that by staying in one place and forging deep ties with one’s community, there is more incentive to give back. ©Brendan Bullock
repaired electric fences; line-trimmed and staked out new pastures with electric fencing; caught and sorted a barnful of heritage Bourbon turkeys; scraped sheep hides all afternoon to prepare for tanning; ran an egg washing and packaging line; processed chickens from whole chicken to shrink-wrapped parts; and helped inoculate sheep, jar fresh honey,
set up a farmers’ market, and castrate a piglet. I’ve also been stepped on by a boar, butted by a ram, pecked at by geese, stung by bees, and scraped by the wings of turkeys. Much of this was hard physical labor and most of it on hot summer days in open, sunny fields or saw-dusty barns.
Sarah “Sass” Linneken started volunteering at Veggies For All in 2013, as a student pursuing a degree in Environmental Writing and Media Studies at Unity College. Now graduated, she runs an organization called Resources For Organizing and Social Change. Like many people across Maine, Sass herself was once food insecure she relied on programs like Veggies For All to feed her family healthy food. Now that he own situation is stable, Sass gives back by volunteering, and often brings her husband and kids to help too. She also keeps a vegetable garden at home. ©Brendan Bullock
Craig Haney, Stone Barns’s thoughtful—even cerebral—livestock manager, told me, when I asked about working on the farm, that volunteers “have to understand that it’s less about taking care of the animals than about tending to their environment.” He told me this mainly because his experience with past volunteers was that some don’t understand how
much physical labor is involved. It’s more about moving fences, filling watering troughs, and collecting eggs than direct contact with the farm animals, who are mostly not that interested in contact with human beings—with the exception of Stanley and Stella, the two sweet Italian Meremma sheepdogs who watch over the sheep. But his phrase “tending to their environment” stuck with me. Because this of course is what farmers do—they tend to an environment, shaping it in conscious ways for the health of the animals, human and otherwise, who depend on it.
More and more this is what we are called upon to do as a species in the time of climate change—just at the historical moment when most of us are doing it less and less. When my grandfather farmed in the 1940s, nearly twenty percent of American workers worked on farms; now, fewer than two per cent do. Where farming does exist on a large scale in the US, giant combines make the it possible for a few farmers to manage thousands of acres of land planted fencerow to fencerow—or, in the case of factory-farmed livestock, for a few farmers to raise thousands of chickens or pigs in confined spaces. And where large-scale farming does still involve copious labor—in the harvesting of produce—the work is done almost entirely by migrant workers, whose value to the society in doing this often brutal work is severely underestimated and whose plight is largely ignored, sadly even by those who are looking for more sustainable food. In places like Westchester County, which was still largely agricultural almost until the 20th century, farmlands have reverted to forest, which many people think of as a more “natural” or “environmental” form of landscape, forgetting that even the Algonquin peoples who lived here before the colonial farmers “tended to their environment”—by clearing land for their crops of squash and corn and improving the habitat for deer.
Most of us are not “tending to the environment” in any meaningful way, but perhaps things are beginning to change. Farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), and the farm-to-table movement are creating space for a new/old way of farming to grow. At Stone Barns I met a new generation of young people interested in careers in sustainable agriculture, “individuals who are observant, like physical work, and can appreciate the adventure of farming,” as Craig Haney characterized them to me. Even among the vast majority of people
who will never farm, many are awakening to Wendell Berry’s observation that eating itself is “an agricultural act.” If more and more people expect their food to be sourced locally and sustainably, animals to be treated humanely, and farmers to treated fairly, then perhaps the landscape can change. I realize that there are serious political and economic obstacles to this kind of agriculture on a meaningful scale, but at Stone Barns, in America’s oldest suburb, I met people who are able to imagine it.
Feeding Maine: Growing Access To Good Food
When you see the phrase “food insecurity,” you might picture scenes from distant places hit by the global food crisis: barren fields marked by drought, families fleeing wars, or people waiting in long ration lines.
You might not picture Maine.
Yet more than 200,000 Mainers are food insecure. The term encompasses hunger and scarcity, as well as lack of access to food that’s fresh and healthy. Meeting this need for good food is where Maine’s farmers, workers, and volunteers come in. We are fortunate to have at hand everything required to feed our state: abundant farmland, skilled farmers, and people invested in forging ties between farms and low-income Mainers.
In making fresh ingredients accessible to those who need them most, the projects featured here are also forging new opportunities for Maine farms by opening up markets, diverting waste through farm donations and gleaning, and creating new customers who seek fresh, local food.
This series is a collaboration between Maine Farmland Trust and Good Shepherd Food Bank. It seeks to document some of the many people working for change in our communities across the state, with the hope that these efforts will continue to grow into a resilient food system that serves all Mainers. Images by Brendan Bullock, text by Annie Murphy.
Jeffrey Myers is Professor of English at Manhattan College and the author of Converging Stories: Race, Ecology, and Environmental Justice in American Literature, as well as essays in African American Review, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, and several anthologies. As both a scholar and creative writer, he focuses on race and the environment in literature and culture, with particular attention to the implications for environmental justice.
Brendan Bullock is a freelance photographer and photographic educator based in Bowdoinham ME. His work has been published in a number of publications including the New York Times and Virginia Quarterly Review, and exhibited in numerous exhibitions nationwide.