With gratitude and admiration, we offer our deepest thanks to Jill Isenbarger as she transitions out of her role as Stone Barns Center’s CEO. She has been at the helm of our organization for the past 10 years, scaling our impact nationally and catalyzing conversations about the role of regenerative agriculture in bringing about a more sustainable American food system.
Jill’s tenure here coincided with a significant shift in the public discourse on food, farming and climate change, and she leaves the Center well positioned to utilize its voice to accelerate action through ecological farming and thoughtful eating. We are deeply grateful to her for her dedication and passion as we celebrate a decade of success under her guidance.
Below, Jill reflects on her work at Stone Barns Center over the past decade, our changing food system and a challenging global context.
Reflecting on your decade as CEO of Stone Barns Center, what are your most memorable moments?
The most memorable moments were conversations and sharing of ideas with people from a diverse array of disciplines. On any given day I might find myself speaking to a farmer, engineer, educator, chef, conservationist, neighbor, policy maker, journalist, healthcare professional, investor, baker, brewer or miller. The food movement is bringing together the most interesting cast of characters to shape a more sustainable, resilient and delicious food system.
The multidisciplinary gatherings we hosted, such as the New York Times Food for Tomorrow conference, embodied the power and creativity of this professional and academic diversity. We had the opportunity to hear from a plant geneticist and seed breeder from Cornell University, a tech entrepreneur developing an online tool to help farmers select a more diverse array of seeds, a young entrepreneur working on a business model to provide land access to young farmers, and another entrepreneur with an incubator space in Washington designed to help young chefs and bakers launch new food businesses. Only at a place like Stone Barns could you bring together such a vibrant, multidisciplinary group to engage in meaningful exchange and problem solving.
When you look across the food and agriculture landscape, what are you most optimistic/excited about?
When I look broadly across the landscape of food and farming, I am heartened to see deep cross-disciplinary relationships being forged among people and institutions. I am excited to see innovation in various sectors and energy in talented young people.
I am excited by the prospect of cuisine that puts good farming front and center. What people like Dan Barber at Blue Hill and Ayr Muir at Clover Food Lab in Boston are doing is nothing short of revolutionary – and not just because people line up out the door for things like a daikon radish sandwich. Their work is transformative because they are developing business models that foster healthy ecosystems.
Finally, I would be remiss not to express my optimism in the new breed of young famers entering the fields. The USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture reports that the number of farmers under 35 is growing. And many of those new farmers are highly educated, highly motivated, and completely dedicated to a new era of sustainable agriculture.
You had the opportunity to work with David Rockefeller, Stone Barns Center’s co-founder and one of the country’s foremost philanthropists. What was that experience like?
Mr. Rockefeller was a man of vision and humility, a man who was gracious, thoughtful, and caring. In 1915, the year of Mr. Rockefeller’s birth, horse use peaked in the United States. By the time of his death in 2017, we stood on the cusp of autonomous electric vehicles. The amount and pace of change that Mr. Rockefeller witnessed in his lifetime is staggering to contemplate. Through all of these times, Mr. Rockefeller was a dependable force for positive change. From the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to the Council on Foreign Relations, from the Museum of Modern Art to the Trilateral Commission, and from the revitalization of Lower Manhattan to the formation of Stone Barns Center, Mr. Rockefeller was a businessman and a philanthropist who believed in the power of institutions, the essential good of people, and the importance of loyalty and gratitude.
Not only was it a great honor to work with David Rockefeller, it was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege to work with his daughter, Peggy Dulany – an incredible advocate who works tirelessly to empower people and cultivate new leaders. Like her father, Peggy believes that “it’s important we use our heads but also follow our hearts;” she works to pass this lesson on to the future leaders she mentors.
In our politically and socially turbulent times, I am particularly grateful for David Rockefeller’s commitment to and belief in institutions. He recognized that wicked problems cannot be solved with quick fixes, and his daughter carries on his commitment to investing in long-term solutions and relationships.
What is one policy you would like to see implemented that would have significant impact on our food and farm system?
The single greatest positive impact on our nation’s food system would come from a federal policy that advances agroecological farming – a policy that would measure and reward economic, environmental, and social performance tied to human health, not just per-acre crop yields.
As a parent, has your work at Stone Barns impacted how your children view farming? Did your family’s eating patterns change during your tenure at Stone Barns?
To quote my friend Rick Schneiders, we need to create food experiences that invite feelings of Memory, Trust, and Romance. Having experienced the Stone Barns community of food and farming, my kids definitely have these feelings.
While my work at Stone Barns has given me a heightened awareness of nutrition, and continued to deepen my understanding about how our food system has made unhealthy food ubiquitous, it has also given me the opportunity to be surrounded by people who are extremely thoughtful – almost spiritual – about food and its value. That is a gift I am so grateful to be able to pass on to my kids.
My kids have taken mokum carrots to school as treats for the last several years. Students at Colonial Elementary now request them, and I am lucky enough to have friends from Stone Barns who have taught me how to grow the best mokums on the east coast. To my kids, that carrot is as much as a symbol of love as the cookie or cupcake that they used to bring to the holiday party.
Growing things, spending time cooking meals for friends, experimenting in the kitchen and sharing the delicious products from the farm are now part of our family culture, and my kids understand that growing and cooking food allow them to express their values, artistry and identity.