Q&A with Dan Barber


May 8, 2017

InkIssue 24: May/June 2017

I’ve heard you speak about the importance of relationships in a farming or ecological system. What role do human relationships play within food and farming systems?

I’d challenge anyone to show me an example of a thriving agricultural system that’s not supported by an equally thriving community above ground. It’s impossible to separate the two.

As you know, two-thirds of all farmland in the United States will change hands in the next two decades. While there has been a resurgence of young and beginning farmers, there are very real systemic barriers to their entering the industry, including lack of access to capital and land. What does this say about our current food system and/or agricultural policies? What needs to change?

Right now, we’re at a kind of inflection point: consumers are increasingly moving toward better flavor, nutrition and sustainability, but the food system, and the agricultural forces behind it, haven’t caught up. The good news is that big companies know that the way they’ve been doing business isn’t working. I think that means we’re going to see more systemic changes to incentivize young farmers and reward better methods of production.

When we consider the health of the food system, should we also be talking about the health and well-being of our farmers? As an indicator, what does it mean if our farmers are not thriving—financially, emotionally, physically?

The measure of sustainability can’t just be the health of the soil: It’s the health and resilience of the whole system. What’s more essential to that than the well-being of our farmers?

As a chef and a restaurant owner, how do you think restaurants can best support young and beginning farmers, especially during those first exhausting, precarious years? How can chefs and restaurateurs help to ensure that local food is not just a flashy trend?

We’ve already benefited from the dialogue that’s begun between chefs and farmers. But to truly move this conversation forward, we chefs have to go beyond being just end users and start participating in the process from the ground up. How can chefs and farmers influence one another’s decisions in the field and the kitchen to maximize ecology, economy, and flavor? Can we imagine a way of eating that not only supports good agriculture, but also adds value to the whole system?

What role does transparency and honesty play in the advertising of local food on menus? In a world where food fraud is unfortunately alive and well, how can consumers ensure that they’re actually eating what restaurants claim to be serving?

Being greedy for good food is one way to do it. People are discovering—or maybe rediscovering—that the food grown in the right way is invariably more delicious. It’s made us more demanding about our food—we want to know where it comes from, how it was grown. But we still need to do a little more work to educate ourselves about the nuts and bolts of agriculture, and to ask more questions.

It’s easy to get tired, burned out, or wonder how on earth we can make real change in the food system when, for example, Monsanto’s agricultural lobbying dollars totaled $4.6 billion last year. I know I would benefit from your best dose of realistic hope for the future of food and farming in this country. Are you hopeful, and why? And how is the next generation of farmers uniquely equipped to change the way we grow and eat?

Put simply, we don’t have the resources to sustain the current structure of how we grow and consume food. By virtue of necessity, we’re moving toward a system with more diversity and fewer chemical amendments on our farms, diets that are more in tune with what our locality can provide, and improved livelihoods for our farmers. ✜

Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and the author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food (The Penguin Press 2014). Barber has received multiple James Beard awards including Best Chef: New York City (2006) and the country’s Outstanding Chef (2009). In 2009 he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.

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