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Mission: Sustainability

At Shelburne Farms, Phoebe Garfinkel makes farm-to-food connections


Published May 14, 2008 at 10:28 a.m.

Phoebe Garfinkel - JORDAN SILVERMAN

Dressed simply in jeans, clogs and a black baby T-shirt, Phoebe Garfinkel walks briskly across the yard outside the Shelburne Farms' Farm Barn, pointing out where artisan food products are prepared and served. There's the facility where the farm's award-winning farmstead cheddar cheese is produced; there's the O' Bread Bakery, which perfumes the air with the aromas of fresh, yeasty bread and cinnamon. And then there's Garfinkel's pet project: a mobile stainless-steel kitchen, called the "Farm Cart," from which staffers serve hungry visitors farm-fresh panini, baked goods and homemade cold beverages.

Away from the barn, on a whirlwind tour of the 1400-acre property, Garfinkel speaks eloquently about the hoop houses that shelter spring crops from the elements, the pigs that will eventually be transformed into pancetta and other types of charcuterie, and the goings-on in the Inn's bustling kitchen. All this is within her purview, because the slight woman, with light brown hair pulled back in a swinging ponytail, is the farm's "food systems coordinator." It's her job to know where the mesclun greens, wild ramps, eggs and beef that come from the property end up, and to use them to create new and interesting "teachable moments" for the Inn's guests and visitors. For instance, near the Farm Cart they'll find planters filled with culinary herbs, labeled for easy identification, rather than ornamentals. After all, Shelburne Farms isn't just a destination location for those who love the finer things in life; it's also a nonprofit organization dedicated to "cultivating a conservation ethic."

Toward that end, the farm is offering two new educational series this summer, and Garfinkel is intimately involved. Starting in May, she'll be leading a series of conversations about sustainability called "Menu for the Future." Topics include "What's Eating America," about "the effects of modern industrial eating habits on culture, society and the Earth"; and "Towards a Just Food System," addressing "issues of hunger, equity and Fair Trade." Garfinkel is also co-facilitator - with Children's Farmyard Coordinator Sam Smith - of the "Backyard Farmer Series," which teaches participants how to raise chickens, grow veggies and make jams and preserves. She certainly has a lot on her, well, plate.

Although she's only 25, Garfinkel's resume reads like that of a much older, and very accomplished, woman: She's secretary of the Vermont Fresh Network's board of directors. She makes use of her B.A. in creative writing by crafting articles for a quarterly publication called Edible Green Mountains. And she's an expert in food preservation such as canning and lacto-fermenting - tomato chutney is her signature preserve. All this in addition to her day job at the farm, which is full-time, year-round.

According to Shelburne Farms VP and Program Coordinator Megan Camp, "Phoebe's role is to advance the farm's education mission by strengthening the food system at Shelburne Farms in a way that ties together our commitment to supporting community-based agriculture and to providing a meaningful visitor experience. The food-related programs that Phoebe is facilitating are all designed to deepen an awareness and understanding of sustainable agriculture, but in a fun, hands-on and delicious way."

Garfinkel herself learned the importance of growing and preparing food not in a classroom but in a hands-on setting - her parents' kitchen. She acquired her love of fine cuisine from her mother, Mary Kaldenbaugh, an occupational therapist, and her father, Ron Garfinkel, a potter - who own 75 acres of land "down East" in coastal Maine. "My mom and dad have always had a huge vegetable garden and flower gardens, and my mom is an excellent cook," Garfinkel recalls. "My parents are two of my biggest role models. It is clear that they chose a lifestyle that was sustaining to them."

As an only child, Garfinkel learned that "social time" meant spending time around the dinner table with her parents' friends as they ate and conversed. "Wine would start flowing and they would start talking about politics," she says. "Everyone was so engaged and happy. I learned that that's what having a good time is all about: yelling happily about the state of the world."

She remembers playing in the kitchen while her mother whipped up enchiladas and white-bean dip with shallots and garlic for those dinner parties. But it wasn't long before Garfinkel got her hands on the chef knives. At the tender age of 13, she began helping out at a catering company run by one of her parents' friends. "My mom called it 'finishing school,' because I'd do really hard prep work and cleaning in the kitchen, but then I'd have to pass hors d'oeuvres and have proper etiquette," she recalls.

During high school, Garfinkel did a stint at The Gothic, a now-defunct pastry shop in Belfast, Maine. There she begged the proprietor, Lisa, to show her the tricks of the trade: "I'd show up at 5 a.m. in the summer and learn how to bake from her," Garfinkel recalls. "She always cut the butter into her scones by hand. I have these really vivid memories of morning exhaustion and seeing Lisa's hands in the flour." That was also where Garfinkel developed her love of quality coffee and espresso.

A five-year veteran of the food industry by the time she arrived at Colorado College, Garfinkel became aware only then, she says, that she had taken her parents' connoisseur's appreciation of food for granted. "I realized that most of my peers had not grown up the way I had," she says. "People kept talking about their Chuck E. Cheese birthday parties, and I didn't know what Chuck E. Cheese was." Few of her new friends' parents had kitchen gardens, either.

After graduating, Garfinkel decided to put off getting a writing gig to spend some time working outdoors. "Most liberal arts majors go through that desire to connect to the land after being so cerebral," she muses. But the place where she ended up, a struggling chile and pork farm, wasn't the kind of agriculture Garfinkel imagined. "The farmer had planted quarter-mile rows [of hot peppers] - the rows never ended," she recalls. "And it was really dry, and it was really hot. I wasn't making it financially working at the farm."

She took a couple of kitchen jobs to make ends meet, then moved to San Francisco, where she did stints at two highly touted eateries: Chez Panisse and the Zuni Café. "Both of those kitchens were so exciting and inspiring," Garfinkel says. Still, she always knew she wasn't cut out to be a chef. "I was offered a job at both of those places, entry-level line-cook positions, but they wanted a yearlong commitment," Garfinkel says, "and I just felt I wasn't ready to give a year to the world of the commercial-restaurant kitchen."

After a stint writing grants in Tucson, Arizona, she discovered Shelburne Farms on the Internet and decided to make another move. "I had never been to Vermont; I knew nobody," Garfinkel relates. Still, she snapped up a job as the agriculture education apprentice because she liked the notion of "a working farm that's producing food and is an educational center; the opportunity to meld real farming and education is unique."

She liked it enough to stick around and make the transition from a live-in apprenticeship to a full-time farm job, meeting the challenge of feeding day visitors with fresh foods grown on-site. "I was in the right place at the right time," says Garfinkel. "The position was created partly out of need and partly because I was ready to jump in and get it done." She did - by coming up with the option of a movable cart decked out with coolers and a panini grill. Last year, the cart served more than 6500 hungry visitors.

Now that the cart is beginning its second year, Garfinkel's role has changed. As food systems coordinator, she's responsible for creating new opportunities to showcase the food grown and raised on the farm and help the "producers . . . communicate their mission to the public," she says. Hence the courses and seminars.

"I think Vermont has a real opportunity to be a leader in the farming and culinary world," Garfinkel opines. "But a lot of times we are subtly disregarded because of our size and progressiveness."

She sees that changing as food and petroleum prices continue to rise. "I have to believe that the new wave of thinking is going to come out of a shared dialogue about sustainable systems," Garfinkel continues. "When the brilliant minds in this state get together and continue discussions about what a sustainable Vermont looks like, it's going to lead to some change." Personally, she notes, "I feel this overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing obligation to make an impact. I want to figure out a way to help everybody eat well, and I want that act of eating to not hurt anybody, or the planet."

But, like her parents, Garfinkel isn't the type to sacrifice her personal life on the altar of her profession. "I am here until I feel like I have done my job, and then I go home . . . unless I want to sit on the lawn at the inn and have a cocktail!" she says. "I feel like balance is one of those things that makes a great employee and a happy person. I spend a majority of my free time in the kitchen at home. I love to cook for my friends."

Not surprisingly, many of those friends are foodies, too. Though she doesn't take her work home, Garfinkel says, "I often end up around the table with the people I work with" - farmers, chefs and other food professionals.

In her mind, sharing work and play with likeminded friends exemplifies a type of "sustainability" no one should forget, even as they strive to change the world. In order to be true to the mission of Shelburne Farms," she says, "I have to not work all the time."

But that doesn't mean she isn't working hard. Says Garfinkel: "We choose work that we love to do - and it demands a lot of us, and it also gives a lot back."

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