Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

A Greenhouse Tour at Stone Barns

Guide and farm staff member Ryan Sokoloff, who started his studies at
Cornell in neuroscience, but decided sustainable ag was more interesting.

Over the weekend, I visited Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, the farm lab, four seasons farm and education center whose Rockefeller land and money have made it a Shangri-La for sustainable agriculture experimentation.

It was the center's annual Harvest Fest, where visitors, many of them wide-eyed future consumers, participated in egg collecting, hay rides, bread and butter making, pickling and carrot top pesto making, among many other things. The weather was cold and gray, and what the day lost in picture postcard ambiance it gained in a display of the kind of real-life weather that comes with the job of farming. 

Destined for the salad plate.

My favorite activity was a tour of the Stone Barns greenhouse led by Stone Barns apprentice Ranan Sokoloff. The Stone Barns 22,000-square-foot greenhouse, he explained, involves 55 different varieties of vegetables that fall into around 10 different plant families. These families are rotated on a 10-year cycle. Each year, each crop family is planted in a new location so the different crops draw on different accounts of the soil's nutrition bank, preventing depletion. In between harvests "cover crops" like sorghum, winter rye and vetch are planted for the sole purpose of enriching the soil.

Cover crops in their infancy.

In preparation for winter, two types of crops are underway: those that are planted in the fall to be harvested in March or April (celtuce, tsai tsai, peas), and those that are planted and harvested continually throughout the winter (carrots, mustard greens, turnips, radishes, lettuce, kale, chard, spinach and mache). Since the growth rate of all of these crops is slower during the winter, it's important to plant successively in order to ensure a constant winter harvest.

Purple peas!

An engaging guide, Sokoloff explained that winter crops are finicky, and must be started from seed and transplanted early enough in the season so that they can take root before the real cold hits. The greenhouse's electric heaters keep the temperature just above freezing, so it's no Florida. The season's heating bill is low enough to be easily recouped by sales, says Sokoloff

He compared this to greenhouses that grow tomatoes in winter. These heat-hungry plants need a steady 65-degree environment, which means that in the Northeast, the annual cost of heating a greenhouse makes it the lucky farmer who breaks even on tomatoes, while burning through lots of fuel. Yet worried about keeping customers through the winter, some farmers feel compelled to grow them. Something to think about when you reach for that alluring winter tomato, the apple in today's sustainable Garden of Eden.

Bees and humans both love these. 

At Stone Barns, added, Sokoloff, "You can eat delicious fresh food all year around. But no tomatoes. That's something you have to wait for."

White dahlias, blue bedder salvia.

In the greenhouse, every square inch of soil is maximized. So often, longer-term growth plants will be inter-planted among shorter-term lettuces. The benefits of some greenhouse products just can't be measured, though. Sokoloff guided us to a row of beautiful white dahlias and spiky blue bedder salvia, noting that their benefit, besides providing beautiful cut flowers, is to attract vegetable plant pollinators and break up the disease and pest cycles of other plantings. The flowers have helped recruit an astonishing 114 varieties of native bees, an added value that Sokoloff notes "might not show in the bottom line."

Farm tours at Stone Barns are offered every Friday, and are well worth the price of admission.

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