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March 28-April 3, 2007

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Dan Barber

Small scale: New York chef Dan Barber has hopes for the passage of the 2007 Farm Bill.

Dining Dilemmas

Chef Dan Barber dishes on a boar of a problem

By Brett Ascarelli

Two weeks ago, Boris finally got what has been coming to him. North Bay residents first learned about the quandary over his fate during COPIA's TASTE3 conference last summer, when Dan Barber, the chef and co-proprietor of an unusual restaurant in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., unburdened himself to a rapt audience. "I was on the shaded hilltop here," Barber said, pointing to an image projected at the front of the conference hall, "watching Boris try to make love to a sow." The image changed to show a 950-pound boar. "That's Boris," he continued, "just after being shunned by the sow."

Dan Barber's restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, sits on an old Rockefeller property in countryside near the Hudson River about 20 miles outside of New York City. The restaurant primarily cooks with food that the staff grows right on the premises, at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. Barber is creative director of this three-year-old center, which cultivates vegetables on some five acres and raises livestock on 22 acres.

Boris was a problem, Barber explained, because he'd stopped "performing." Barber didn't know what to do, so he researched his options and reported the problems of each: (1) shoot and bury the pig, thus wasting over 700 pounds of meat; (2) let Boris live but use up limited resources; (3) slaughter him, but risk "boar taint" making the meat unusable; or (4) castrate Boris and then slaughter him, which would eliminate the risk of boar taint, but--how would the dirty deed be accomplished?

Various members of his staff gravely gave Barber their input. Jack, the vegetable farmer, sensing Barber's attachment to the animal, scolded, "Shoulda named him P-22, man. Once you name him, you're screwed."

With his refreshing manner and innovative ideas about food, Barber is a sought-after figure these days. He's slated to take part in the first ever "New Yorker Conference/2012: Stories from the Near Future" this May, along with such diverse members of the intelligentsia as architect Zaha Hadid, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Talking Heads' David Byrne and Tipping Point writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Heading to Santa Rosa on April 4, Barber will take part in the "Sustainable Agriculture vs. Industrial Food" conversation with activist and author Daniel Imhoff (Food Fight: A Citizen's Guide to the Farm Bill), with the Bohemian's own Clark Wolf moderating.

Barber ranks among such Alice Waters-inspired evangelists as Michael Pollan who are at the helm of a growing movement working to generate curiosity among the public about where our food comes from. Barber caught a few minutes to speak to us by cell phone from New York, where he had just touched down after a trip to Barcelona.

Barber explains that his philosophy (although he hesitates to use that word, saying it sounds pretentious) about food has to do with growing it organically, but not in the usual sense. "It's about looking at organic in a really holistic way," he says. "'Organic' comes from the word 'organism,' which means 'whole.' 'Organic' used to mean not just how your food was grown, but who or what community was growing it and how it was getting to you. Just because it doesn't have pesticides and fertilizers doesn't mean it comes from a squeaky clean food source."

In Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature: Essays in Conservation-Based Agriculture, edited by North Bay resident Imhoff, Barber elaborates on his philosophy-which-he-won't-call-a-philosophy in terms of how it applies to modern farming. Writing in an essay "Will Agriculture Economics Change in Time?" he explains that however much we'd like to look toward the hyper-teensy farms that supply local farmers markets as the answer to the nation's agriculture problems, they're not a realistic solution. Instead, Barber advocates midsized farms, which cultivate roughly 40 percent of U.S. farmland, as the answer--at least for now. Unfortunately, he writes, these midsized farms are encouraged to "get big or get out."

Getting big generally also means scaling back on variety and only growing one crop--often one of the usual suspects heading the ingredient list in processed foods. With sales of over $500,000 and acreage that averages the size of Manhattan, mega-monoculture farms eschew diversity. According to Barber, that's a problem, because there's no balance in such an ecosystem. "Nature doesn't grow things in monocultures," he says, adding that monoculture cultivation practically forces the use of chemicals and pesticides.

What about the wine industry in Napa and Sonoma--isn't that a monoculture? "Yes," he says. "But in the best case, you do it organically and within a system that doesn't require pesticides and fertilizers. That's a prerequisite of good wine. But it's not the same as what's happening in fruits and vegetables."

During his appearance in Santa Rosa, Barber will also discuss the 2007 Farm Bill, which he predicts will go to the floor for a vote quite soon. The bill, which picks up where the 2002 version left off, will influence how the government spends money on agriculture for the next five years. Not only have the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times had positive things to say it, but Oxfam has joined the chorus. Among items eliciting praise for the bill is its decreased focused on such "program crops" as soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and corn. Instead, the bill proposes to boost healthier specialty crops such as vegetables, fruits and tree nuts by allocating funds toward research and a greater role in school lunches.

But Barber isn't convinced. "As a part of the pie," he says, "those funds are very, very small." He also cautions that money often gets cut at the last minute, which stymied some of the best programs in the 2002 Farm Bill. Barber thinks it will still take time before the grassroots food-consciousness efforts that he advocates will really come to fruition on a political scale.

"Stone Barns and many others are trying," Barber says, "to increase that awareness and get people to think about food. That sounds like a very easy thing, but it's not. Stories like [the saga of] Boris can remind people that there's a whole set of choices we have when we eat. And those choices affect not just our health, but our community, our landscape, our environment--as we have increasingly seen--our political landscape and on and on. And it comes down to what kind of choices we make when we buy food."

And just whatever did happen to Boris?

Barber and his staff eventually found a vet that could castrate the boar relatively painlessly. He slaughtered Boris about two weeks ago. "We're still eating his sausage," Barber laughs. "Actually, we'll be eating it for a while."

Dan Barber and Dan Imhoff appear in conversation with Clark Wolf on Wednesday, April 4, at the Jackson Theater. Sonoma Country Day School, 4400 Day School Place, Santa Rosa. 7pm. $10-$15. 707.284.3200.

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