How John Muir Is Revolutionizing the Farm-to-Table Food Movement

Yes, that John Muir. His observations on nature's interconnected systems deeply influenced award-winning chef Dan Barber's new book, The Third Plate.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.

Doug McLean

Dan Barber, chef of New York’s pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Blue Hill, has long been a champion of the local, organic food movement. But now he thinks it’s time for the movement to grow up.

“Farm-to-table has failed to transform the way most of our food is grown in this country,” he writes in his new book The Third Plate: Field Notes for the Future of Food. Local, organic meals basically resemble what Americans have been eating for generations—a large hunk of meat in the center, veggies pushed off to the side. The sourcing’s better, but the diet hasn’t really changed.

In order to transform our agricultural landscape—and make farm-to-table truly sustainable—Barber insists we’ll need to develop a “Third Plate:” a form of eating that harnesses the incredible power of ecological relationships, while reflecting the proportions of what farmers can reasonably grow. In his conversation for this series, Barber told the story of how his search for better wheat flour led to a culinary epiphany, and explained why a line by American naturalist John Muir helps him articulate his vision for our food’s future.

When The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan’s now-classic 2006 work, questioned the logic of our nation’s food system, “local” and “organic” weren’t ubiquitous they way they are today. Embracing Pollan’s iconoclasm, but applying it to the updated food landscape of 2014, The Third Plate reconsiders fundamental assumptions of the movement Pollan’s book helped to spark. In four sections—“Soil,” “Land, “Sea,” and “Seed”—The Third Plate outlines how his pursuit of intense flavor repeatedly forced him to look beyond individual ingredients at a region’s broader story—and demonstrates how land, communities, and taste benefit when ecology informs the way we source, cook, and eat.

Barber is the recipient of multiple awards from the James Beard Foundation, including Best Chef: New York City (2006) and the country's Outstanding Chef (2009). His second restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, is a working farm and celebrated educational center in the Hudson Valley region of New York. In 2009, he was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.

Dan Barber: My revelation in the kitchen occurred 10 years ago, standing over a bag of all-purpose flour.

The flour-bin is parked outside my office window in the kitchen, so it’s constantly in view. I watch it being emptied and refilled, emptied and refilled, all day long. We use a ton of flour at Blue Hill—we’re not unusual in that regard. All-purpose flour is probably the most ubiquitous ingredient in my kitchen. But I realized one day that I knew nothing about this particular ingredient. I didn’t know where it came from, or how it was grown—I only knew that it had absolutely no flavor, and it was in everything.

There I was, running a farm-to-table restaurant—meticulously sourcing my produce, cheese, and meats—and I hadn’t given a thought to this basic facet of my cooking.

So I decided I wanted to get my hands some delicious flour, flour from wheat with a story, flour with presence you could taste. Like any farm-to-table chef, I figured I’d start by finding a local, organic grain farmer. I found a guy named Klaas Martens, from upstate New York, who grew emmer wheat. This particular variety of emmer was, at the time, nearly extinct—but Klaas was preserving it, and he started to supply Blue Hill. I bought a grinder for the restaurant, and we ground Klaas’s wheat, milled it into our own flour, and made this stunning whole wheat bread.

There I was walking the farm-to-table walk with my organic heirloom wheat, basically milled to order. But before long, things started to get more complicated.

I went back to visit Klaas’s farm, thinking I’d write about him for my book, which was then in its earliest stages. On that visit, I had a second culinary epiphany—one that took place not in the kitchen, but in the field. Looking out from the middle of Klaas’s farm, about 2,000 acres, I realized there wasnt any wheat—at least, not at that time of year. I was surrounded by millet, and oats, and barley, and buckwheat, some mustard greens, some kidney beans—but no wheat. All these crops, I learned from Klaas, had very specific functions. The beans gave the soil nitrogen, and the barley was there to build soil structure, the mustard plants helped cleanse the soil of pathogens and diseases. They were planted in this carefully timed sequence throughout the year. All of this was to prepare the soil, to create the best possible conditions for that great, amazingly flavored emmer wheat. Klaas couldn’t grow his healthy, vigorous, chemical-free wheat without those rotating those other crops in, too.

I remember thinking: Oh my god, Ive got this all wrong. I'd created a market for this local, heirloom emmer wheat, but I wasn't doing anything to support the entire system that sustained it. Seventy percent of the crops supporting me weren't even being used. They were essentially dumped into bag feed for animals. At the time, there wasn’t a local market for buckwheat, for barley, or for millet, or rye, so Klaas had no alternative. He was just breaking even to build up enough soil fertility for wheat and corn and the stuff that could actually make him money. It just struck me as insane. I realized that, to support a farmer like Klaas, I needed to change my cooking. I needed to cook with the idea of the whole farm in mind.

Around that time, I read a line from John Muir for the first time—or if not for the first time, I read it consciously for the first time—that helped me articulate what I’d discovered on Klaas’s farm.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” he wrote, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

When he wrote this, over a century ago, of course, Muir wasn’t talking about agriculture—he was referring to the interconnectedness of natural systems. But the same holds true for farming. I had come to Klaas looking only for the wheat; but I learned that, in a healthy farming environment, you can’t separate one crop from the rest. Remove the barley, say, and the quality of the soil will degrade to a certain extent—eventually, the wheat will change, too.

I discovered that you can't look at a great ingredient—a jaw-dropping, delicious-flavored anything—without understanding the ecology it came out of. In fact, without Muir's quote, I don't know if the full meaning even of the term ecology—and all the interrelationships that that word implies—would ever have made as much sense to me.

I began to rethink my relationship to food, understanding that each isolated ingredient in my kitchen is implicated within a complex network of relationships. If I want Klaas’s wheat, I should try to find a way to support his beans and his rye and his mustard greens, too. We talk about nose-to-tail eating of animals—to waste less, to innovate, by finding inspired culinary use for all the gamy, complex, less “choice” cuts of meat. Well, we need nose-to-tail eating of the whole farm. We’ve got to learn ways to give these “undesirable” crops some mojo through really creative cooking.

I made a dish from Klaas’s rotation crops called “Rotation Risotto”—it was all the crops that went to support the wheat, but no wheat, and no rice because he doesn’t grow it. It was 12 or 13 different lowly grains—barley, rye, grasses like buckwheat, legumes like Austrian winter peas, and seeds, everything, to use Muir’s word, “hitched” to the wheat. I fashioned these ingredients into something that resembles a risotto. Not only does it get people asking questions—“What the hell’s a rotation?”—it’s incredibly tasty.

And that’s the thing. I didn't begin the book with the ethics of an environmentalist, or an eye toward reforming our food system. It was selfish, really: My exploration was motivated by my simple and single-minded pursuit of great flavor. Each time I was driven out of the restaurant into the farms and fields, it was because I’d tasted something so great that I had to learn more. I'm a chef—that's what I'm supposed to do. Chefs will do anything to find great flavors. We are pitbulls for flavor. And that hedonistic impulse actually has great power. Ultimately, it can translate into a changed landscape, and even better tasting food, if we stop focusing on growing individual products, and starting trying to grow nature.

I don’t think the local foods movement, as it currently stands, has the power to change our food system in this way. You cannot transform the landscape with a chef who gets excited about a tomato and then decides to support a local tomato farmer. That’s a good beginning, but it’s not enough. Because any kind of good agriculture—especially organic agriculture—does not allow you to plant a lot of the same crop without chemicals, or without sacrificing plant health.

By only buying the tomato, a chef doesn’t support all the many kinds of agronomic labor that go into its production. We can’t keep taking the cream of the crop. Otherwise, we’re ignoring all the farmer’s sub-costs—essentially saying, “You handle the pests and the plant disease, while I deal with the celebrated crop.”

We think we’ve done enough by choosing the coveted items if they’re local, if they’re organic, and if we can shake the hand of the farmer that grew them—but that’s not enough. The maturation of the local food ethos is a chef whose menu celebrates tomatoes in their right proportion, but also celebrates their connection to the whole—everything that it took to get that soil ready to plant that tomato. That, to me, is the awakening. And I don't think I would have been able to see those things as clearly without the line from Muir.

One of the things that’s amazing about his idea, is that the circle keeps widening, the connections become more various, more beautifully complex.

I saw this on another trip to Klaas's farm, many years later. He had started farming animals: chickens and pigs. After the emmer wheat is harvested, the pigs go out and forage on the stalks left in the field. All of a sudden, the wheat becomes a double crop: We take the grain, the pigs forage on the stalks and get free feed, and they drop their manure in the field. As a result, the soil is better prepped for this next rotation.

And I realized: What's the difference between supporting Klaas’s buckwheat, or barley, and supporting the pigs? I had to support the pigs. And I had to buy Klaas’s eggs, because the chickens were doing same things on the other grains: They were eating the discarded grains, for instance, grains that were ruined by rain the day before a harvest, and were not fit even for sale as bag feed. Before he had chickens, Klaas would compost these grains. Now, you've got a waste product being fed to an omnivore creating this unbelievably delicious end product—essentially for free.

On a more recent trip, I went up and found that the system had evolved even more. A malting facility opened not far from Klaas’s farm. And why did a malter open? Because there's an explosion of microbreweries in New York state, and nobody can get local barley malt because nobody's growing barley—except for the farmers like Klaas who are using it in their rotations. Now Klaas makes a 30-percent profit selling his barley to the malter. And, as a chef, I’m forced into making another connection: to support Klaas’s wheat, I need to drink local beer.

My point is that it keeps expanding. That's the beauty of Muir's line: You can spend a lifetime, if you're a good farmer or a thoughtful cook, being surprised by the connections. But you can spend a lifetime ignoring them, too. Because the techniques used in our industrial food system can be characterized by disconnection, a systematic unhitching. Everything is relegated to its own silo: vegetables over here, and animals there, and grain somewhere else. All the component parts are kept apart. And because they’re unhitched from each other, unsurprisingly, they're unhitched from any kind of food culture.

So what is the role of the chef? It’s to help with the hitching. To show there is pleasure, good taste, and environmental sustainability in fostering connections. After all, that’s what cuisine is: the way a region’s unique ecological relationships, and place-specific advantages and challenges, become manifested through delicious food.

You see this time again throughout history: When Parmesan cheese was developed in Parma, Italy, it created an excess of whey. So, the farmers fed the whey to their pigs—and then they cured the meat and got prosciutto di parma. The whey, a byproduct of the Parmesan process, fattened the pigs into this wonderfully flavorful and delicious ham.

Or when French peasants wondered what do to with the tough and inedible meat of roosters and old laying hens. They broke down the bonds of the proteins by braising the meat in wine (another regional product), and got coq au vin.

You find that in Southern cuisine, too. Hoppin’ John—a quintessential southern dish—is rice, but it’s also cowpeas. That leguminous crop was so important in the south, because it allowed the southerners to preserve their soil well enough to get them rice. Then, they mixed in collard greens, because collards helped desalinate the soil. (And some bacon, because pigs were also part of the agriculture.)

In other words, people created these dishes to support an ecological reality. And they become ingrained in the cuisine, and culture of the place.

Most of America lacks strong regional cuisines because we were never forced into acknowledging the connections that Muir articulates. Once, we had the greatest soil in the world. We’ve essentially abused it for 200-plus years. The colonists who came over from Europe were not very great farmers. When their soils failed, most farmers dropped their farms and moved west—where they repeated the same pattern.

In Europe, you couldn’t just pick up and go somewhere new. And cuisines were developed as farmers eked out what they could with the limited land and resources. No had any of the modern scientific knowledge we benefit from today. But farmers knew, intuitively, you couldn’t plant the same thing in the same spot, and that you needed to mix your crops, and that certain crops worked beautifully—symbiotically—in rotations. They needed soil fertility, so they created a system of agriculture to support it—and then a cuisine to support that system.

Americans were never forced into that. So I’m sitting here today, talking about these issues, because we are such a rich country—we were so blessed, that we never required a more enlightened way of eating. It’s how we ended up with the 12-ounce, protein-centric plate.

That meat-centric plate is a great disservice to our soil, and to our ecology. It’s also a disservice to the rest of the world—because we’re exporting that model in a way that, in the truest sense of the word, is unsustainable. But we can find an alternative—what I came to call the Third Plate.

It’s an imposing task. I look with great chefs from other cultures with some jealousy. They can make connections to their cultural past, hitching to the rich culinary traditions of their parent culture. Great French chefs, great Italian chefs, are modernizing classic cuisine—riffing on it, pushing it forward. But what is Hudson Valley cuisine? It doesn’t really exist—there’s no time-honored logic to hold on to. I have no history to tether my cooking to, really, except for great ingredients. I still want to find a way to put it all together, though I haven’t done that yet. But that’s what I’ll continue to do. The hitching never ends. The circle keeps expanding.