FarmOn! Foundation teaches kids about both irrigation lines and bottom lines
Story by Brian P.J. Cronin
Photograph by Travis W. Keyes Photography
I first met Tessa Edick a year and a half ago, and I don’t think she’s stood still since.
It was a gray day in March, the time of year on a farm in which cabin fever ratchets up to deliriously unstable levels. Seeds are piling up and ready to be planted, tools are organized for the millionth time and everyone is hungrily staring out the windows, waiting for the soil to become warm and workable. But at Empire Farm, located on a plot of land where the Astor family used to run race horses, no one was idly waiting for the weather to tell them when to get to work. Edick’s organization, the FarmOn! Foundation, had just taken over this land, and Edick had no shortage of ideas as to what to do with it.
As she stood in the drafty center of an old farmhouse that was in the process of being gutted down to the studs, she explained where the victory garden would be, where the test kitchen would be and where the annual summer crop of apprentices would sleep and train and learn how to become farmers in the 21st century. It sounded like the kind of 10-year plan that an ambitious nonprofit might sketch out on a whiteboard in the course of a caffeine-fueled weekend retreat. Edick and her small staff were planning on pulling it all together in a few months.
Flash forward to a brilliant late September afternoon, two seasons later. The victory garden, a phrase that conjures up images of a few hundred square feet behind a rickety fence, was a sprawling 10-acre field. The farmhouse, with a gleaming test kitchen—with fixtures and paints picked out by designers at Ralph Lauren and reclaimed wooden floors—looked like it was waiting for the Barefoot Contessa to swoop in and whip up a batch of cheese straws.
The second group of apprentices had returned to their universities and agricultural programs, having earned 12 college credits, but plants don’t stop growing when the kids go back to school. Now Edick was showing off the new hoop houses and high tunnels, to extend the tomato season a few weeks longer and grow greens throughout the winter, giving the farm a source of income in the off-season. There was a spot picked out and cleared for the salad-packing facility, pending grant monies. And inside the farmhouse was a series of empty book shelves that had been hewn into the kitchen walls for a cookbook library: not to be used as scenic dressing in the background of television tapings, but for people in the Copake community to come and borrow and cook. The growing season may have been slowing down, but you wouldn’t know it by the constant flurry of activity.
“When I was growing up, we just called all of this food,” Edick says. “We didn’t use words like ‘organic,’ and there wasn’t anything elitist about it.”
The sustainable food movement has been dogged with charges of elitism since it began coalescing into a national movement about 10 years ago, when Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma became a surprise sensation. Consumers look at the higher prices of organic food and the expensive, exclusive restaurants helmed by chefs priding themselves on being “farm to table” and wonder if sustainable agriculture and healthy food is only for those higher up on the economic food chain than they are. If you’re already skeptical about how inclusive the movement is, you might come to the FarmOn! Foundation’s headquarters and look at the fashionable lighting fixtures, the banner on the barn touting the support of designer John Varvatos, the porch where this summer Alice Waters came and cooked an entire meal over an open fire, and then leave with your worst prejudices confirmed.
Stick around though. There’s a lot going on beneath the soil, things that aren’t obvious to the casual visitor.
There’s the Foundation’s Milk Money program, started in 2012, which now operates in 12 school districts in the Hudson Valley. (Millbrook Central School district is one of those participating; OHV Editor-in-Chief Laurie Szostak is thrilled about this, since her son goes to Millbrook Elementary.) Getting local, sustainably grown or raised food into public schools is an almost impossible task. Not because there isn’t a demand for it, but because small local farms, which don’t get the large government subsidies that farms in the industrial food system do, can’t possibly offer their products at a price low enough to compete. So the FarmOn! Foundation lets the dairy farmers that make up the co-op Hudson Valley Fresh put in the lowest bids in order to secure school contracts, and then pays the farmers the difference between what the schools are paying them and how much they need to be selling it for to stay in business.
It’s not glamourous, it’s not sexy and you’re not going to see a photo spread in Food & Wine magazine of farmers and Edick hunched over spreadsheets while they watch milk prices rise and fall on the Internet. But it saves family farms, creates local jobs and gets sustainably raised, nutrient-rich milk from the cows to the kids in 36 hours. Edick is talking to the governor’s office about how the program can be expanded statewide. “Getting farmers all across the state connected to economic development that’s sustainable then allows communities to grow up stronger and healthier,” she says.
Then there are those apprentices, who are part of a program that the Foundation runs as a partnership with SUNY and Cornell called Ag-Academy at Empire Farm. Sure, the apprentices get to hobnob with famous chefs and restaurateurs like April Bloomfield and Alfred Portale—if by “hobnob” you mean “grow and deliver picture-perfect produce for, on time and as ordered, all summer long or suffer the consequences.”
Apprentices get up, do morning chores, make breakfast out of the eggs they gathered from the henhouse and whatever’s growing in the fields, harvest for the chefs, make sure they have the correct quantity, organize it, fire up QuickBooks for invoicing and then pack out, put on clean clothes, load up the car, drive down to New York City and deliver the produce while ensuring it passes the muster—April Bloomfield didn’t get where she is today by accepting arugula strewn with flea beetles—then turn around and go home.
By then it’s 11:00. As in, the morning. A full day’s work is still ahead.
“It’s the hard-knock life,” says Edick. “But if you want to make a living in farming, you’ve got to figure this out. What are the upsides? What are the difficulties? Where are the barriers? How do you find openings? All of these things come together here. It’s applied learning.”
It also doesn’t always work out. Which is exactly the idea. “They get to make mistakes on our time and our dime, and then walk away wiser,” says Edick. “The mistakes are a gift.”
She’s walking through the fields of blight-stricken tomatoes, the heads of romanesco that never developed the entrancing fractal blooms that make them so appealing on the plate, all victims of the particularly hot, dry and buggy summer. “These are your losses,” she says, pointing to the romanesco that went to seed too quickly. “No one’s going to eat it if it looks like that. It’s trial by fire. But that’s what we want. If these kids made those mistakes on their own, it would be too costly.”
The Foundation teaches kids how to farm and works to secure farmland from retiring farms with no successors so that their land doesn’t fall into the hands of real estate developers. But if those young farmers can’t make their new farms economically viable, then the farms fail, the land is once again in danger of being bought by developers, other prospective young farmers get discouraged and the whole model collapses. That’s why the apprentice program places just as much stress on the business side of farming as it does with getting your hands dirty. There’s a reason why Edick keeps mentioning QuickBooks.
That stress on financials extends to the Foundation’s summer camp program as well for teenagers who, in addition to working on the farm, visited other food businesses and were then tasked with creating their own new product. This summer’s kids came up with a tractor attachment that also functions as a seeder and a weeder, using GPS to mark where seeds were sown, then using that data to pull up everything around those markers as weeds. With most summer camps, the idea would have ended there, on the drawing board. Edick had the kids develop a business proposal and then dropped them in front of a shark tank so that they could pitch it. Even the camp is hard work.
“We work in acres, not hours,” says Edick. “But it translates into work that you feel value for. And even if the campers or apprentices don’t go into farming, everything you ever need to know in life you learn on a farm. You’re learning how to count and cook. There’s geothermal, there’s kids talking about engineering, there’s equipment, old trade-school sets of craftsmanship, that kind of patience and perseverance it takes. They fixed the fence, they worked on the tractor, they used the tractor, we coordinated our big gala together. And none of this happens without the funding that comes from people believing in what we’re doing. This experience will differentiate them when they’re trying to get a job, or looking for their own path.”
Even those who don’t go on to become farmers will still have learned firsthand how much work goes into growing food sustainably and how to cook with it. In the end, hands-on knowledge like that may be the most effective way to combat the notion that sustainable food is an elitist concept.
“You can’t ‘should’ people about food,” says Edick. “It’s very personal. What you like, what your taste buds respond to. You can only lead people to the field, have them pick something, lead them to the kitchen and help them cook it. And once you’ve done that, I don’t have to tell you anything.”
Which is just as well, as she can’t stand around talking forever. She’s a farmer. She can’t stand still for long.
For more information about FarmOn! Foundation, visit www.farmonfoundation.org.
Video by Jillian Barnes
Graphic Design Teacher
Millbrook Middle School & High School