Barber to visit College as Montgomery Fellow

| 2/20/11 11:00pm

Although he feeds large crowds in his popular New York restaurant, Blue Hill, chef Dan Barber only uses produce from small-scale local farms because he recognizes industrial agriculture's vulnerability to increasing energy prices, Barber said in an interview with The Dartmouth. Barber, who will spend five days in residence at the College as a Montgomery Fellow, will discuss how locally-grown products represent the future of American food production and consumption in a lecture on Tuesday. Barber will be in residence at the College as a Montgomery Fellow from Feb. 21-25, according to Richard Stamelman, the executive director of the Montgomery Endowment.

Critics of local farming often claim that the industrial companies have successfully used fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals to generate huge crop yields and keep food prices cheap, according to Barber.

"What happens when farmers' fertilizer and pesticides double and triple in price?" Barber said. "If all the food we're growing is based on cheap energy, and we no longer have cheap energy, you really have to question how that's going to feed the world."

Barber has incorporated this philosophy into his career as executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurant, which is partnered with Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, an organic farm that supplies all the restaurant's ingredients. Blue Hill has locations in Manhattan and Westchester, N.Y.

Barber served on President Barack Obama's 2010-2012 Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, a committee designed to encourage healthy lifestyles for all Americans, according to the council's website.

Barber said he views his inclusion on the council as proof that the Obama administration has begun to appreciate the connection between health and the food production process.

"The council used to be about athletes," Barber said. "The definition of health is a lot more diverse you also need to think about food that is grown in the right way."

Chefs such as Barber can raise public awareness regarding the ecological impact of food production, according to Scott Stokoe, manager of the Dartmouth Organic Farm.

"The chef is in a really powerful role to steer food choices," Stokoe said. "Part of it is thinking, Here is a new food and it's good for the planet, but it also tastes great.'" Barber's residency at the College will give students interested in local food systems the opportunity to interact with a respected expert in the field, Stokoe said.

Barber's deep understanding of the process of producing a healthy meal from cultivating the produce on the farm to presenting it on customers' plates made him an attractive option for the Montgomery Endowment, Stamelman said.

"He is a true chef and also a person who has his own farm, so he knows a great deal about how food is produced at farm-level and then how it is taken and used in a restaurant to present to diners," Stamelman said.

Institutions like Dartmouth wield disproportionate influence on agriculture because of their substantial purchasing power, according to Barber. Since college campuses demand such high quantities of food, they can influence local farmers to alter their production systems to be more environmentally-friendly, Barber said.

The farm at Stone Barns Center relies on solar energy known as "current energy" rather than chemical inputs to produce food, Barber said. The farm plants a diverse set of crops to maintain soil health and uses manure, rather than chemicals, to nourish its plants, according to Barber.

"The idea is to trap sunlight energy and convert it to plant growth through photosynthesis," he said. "With energy becoming so expensive, all of a sudden keeping energy current is looking like the future."

In order to render farms less reliant on chemical inputs, Americans need to evaluate food in terms of "cost per nutrient value" rather than the current tendency to judge food by its "cost per quantity," Barber said. This approach would help people understand the importance of small-scale local farms, according to Barber.

The animals at Stone Barns Center are grass-fed, which reduces irrigation demand, according to Barber. The problem with raising animals on grain the dominant industrial agriculture model is the resulting dependence on resources such as water whose future accessibility is uncertain, he said.

Throughout the Upper Valley, a preference for local food has already arisen from of a desire to strengthen communities by supporting the local economy, according to Bill McKibben, founder of the climate-change activism organization 350.org.

"There is a strong group of well-educated eaters people who are thinking about food as something other than fuel," McKibben said.

Barber's lecture, "Cultivating Flavor: A Recipe for the Recipe," is the final installment of the College's three-part Winter 2011 Montgomery Endowment Lecture Series, "Tell Me What You Eat, I'll Tell You Who You Are."

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