The Grass Is Always Greener

This spring, Stone Barns Center had a problem. As it turned out, our neighbor—the Rockefeller State Park Preserve—had a problem, too. This is the story about how, by raising our sight beyond property boundaries to the larger landscape, we solved those problems together.

After Stone Barns farmers converted a section of pasture to a field of grains, the livestock managers knew they would be hard-pressed to find adequate grass and forage for our growing flock of sheep. Meanwhile, a few miles down the road, a portion of the Rockefeller State Park Preserve—Rockwood Hall, overlooking the Hudson River—has been overrun by the highly invasive akebia and porcelainberry vines.

Over coffee one day, Susan Antenen, the new preserve manager, and Stone Barns director Jill Isenbarger hatched an idea for collaborative landscape management. Taking a page from their past Nature Conservancy playbook, where both women were on staff, they decided to experiment with grazing as a way of controlling the invasive vines and improving soil health, while gaining more forage for the sheep.

In July, Stone Barns livestock manager Chris O’Blenness moved a flock of 50 ewes to the Rockwood Hall land. Every few days, he rotates them through paddocks using temporary electric fencing. To keep watch on the sheep, Chris has been spending nights in a small trailer on the preserve. For company, he has Stanley, a Maremma guard dog; two high school interns helped out for a couple of weeks in the summer.

“We think this is the first time that a state park or public agency in the region has made land available to a local farmer as part of a land-management strategy,” Susan Antenen told a New York Times reporter in August. The paper ran a story about the project on August 25.

Has the experiment worked? Turns out, says Chris, “sheep won’t touch the vines.” So he recently brought in backup: seven goats. “The goats hammer it.” In a one-two punch, the sheep mow the grasses low around the invasive vines, and the goats then zero in on them. But the experiment started late in the growing season, notes Chris, and he’s eager to start fresh next spring.

In November, Chris will move the flock back to the shelter of Stone Barns Center for the winter. But come spring, this experiment in public-private land management will begin all over again.