By PHYL NEWBECK
At first blush, it might seem odd that a woman from Brooklyn was chosen last November to be the new Food and Farm Director at Philo Ridge Farm in Charlotte, but Francine Stephens is uniquely suited for the position.
“I have spent my entire professional life connecting consumers with the food they are eating and products they are buying to help them realize there are financial, social and economic consequences to their purchases,” she said. “Consumers can make a difference with their dollars.”
The 47-year-old Stephens started her career in the nonprofit world with organizations such as Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Chef’s Collaborative, where she helped create labels for alar-free apples and other products, and wrote about sustainable seafood procurement.
After marrying her husband, chef Andrew Feinberg, the pair opened a Brooklyn restaurant called Franny’s in 2004 and then a store called Brooklyn Larder which is still in existence. “We spent 15 years building a community that cared about delicious and responsible food,” she said.
Deciding that she and her husband had accomplished their goals, Stephens shifted gears and got her undergraduate degree at the University of Vermont and then her master’s at Antioch College in Keene, N.H. “This job presented itself,” she said of her new position at Philo Ridge Farm “and it seemed like a really natural next step.”
Stephens loves the fact that her job is a constant learning experience. During the end of her restaurant career, she felt she wasn’t gaining new knowledge but now she is getting the opportunity to learn all about the diversified farm which produces a variety of meats, wool products, organic hay, vegetables, fruit and even some small grains and flowers. These items, along with high-end gift products, are sold on the premises in a recently renovated barn.
The farm employs about 15 people and opened on July 5. The market has a there is a full coffee bar and a counter that serves breakfast and lunch items like cold brew coffees and egg sandwiches made from eggs straight from the farm’s chickens.
Philo Ridge Farm is a family affair, since Feinberg is the executive chef. “Delicious food is the entry point for some of the deeper issues we are trying to be part of,” said Stephens. “We have an opportunity at the farm to create something beautiful.”
Stephens said Philo Ridge Farm uses a variety of ecologically sound agricultural and grazing techniques but noted that those are things that don’t always resonate with consumers initially. “When you have the moment when someone tastes something delicious,” she said, “it gives you the opportunity to say why it’s so good and to talk about our farming practices.”
Stephens and her crew have multiple goals for the farm, including creating a welcoming and accessible place and trying to provide an example of how to turn around the agricultural economy in Vermont. To that end, they have a partnership with UVM Extension, which offers support for pasture management. They host a variety of events including a Farm to Ballet production, classes, and field trips, and they have created a walking path directly from Charlotte Central School to the farm.
Getting her hands dirty is a new experience for Stephens and although weeding and harvesting isn’t part of her job description, she believes that if she wants to be an advocate for the farm, she needs to understand the scope of the work.
“Before, I had only a conceptual understanding,” she said “but now I’ve done some of it. I’m super excited to get my hands dirty.”