Empire Farm: An Ag Academy For Farmers (And The Rest Of Us)
Photos provided by FarmOn!
By Jamie Larson
We put a lot of stock in our commitment to farm-to-table living in our region. Of course we shop at farmers markets and have a CSA membership and always read the farm lists at the bottom of the restaurant menus. However, there is still a lot more we can do, things we don’t always consider, to support farmers and the industry that so defines the Berkshires and the Hudson Valley. That’s where Tessa Edick comes in.
From her beautiful and historic Empire Farm in Copake, New York, Edick started the FarmOn! Foundation, which supports the small-scale local farming industry though political advocacy, major business partnerships, farmer trainings in modernized practices and perhaps most importantly, educational youth programing to help insure that the next generation sees the value in agriculture and, you know, farms on.
While the season may have shut down the outdoor classes and activities for now, FarmOn! is opening a holiday pop-up shop December 2-17 that will be filled with locally produced goods that support their cause and make for excellent gifts. The shop is also an excellent reason to just come see the bucolic farm and its newly restored 1810 farm house.
“FarmOn! started with the idea that farmers needed a lobby,” Edick said between farm chores. “When you can’t fight big business directly you have to start in the community.”
“Source local but also allocate your dollars to the right people,” she continued. “I think in New York State we have an advantage because we have such a rich farming tradition, but you still have to be diligent about how and where you shop because consumers drive the narrative.”
Edick, who grew up on a dairy farm and later ran her own successful tomato sauce business, has had a home in Copake since 2000. After selling off her business in 2010 she decided to develop the historic farm down the road from her home. Originally a part of the vast land holdings of the Astor family, Empire was a horse farm and race track. For some time it was the out-of-the-way project for the black sheep of the family while the rest of the Astors played Monopoly with Manhattan real estate.
As wonderful as Empire Farm is to visit, it’s the work Edick is doing through FarmOn! to support other farms that makes it special. And it isn’t just about sourcing; it’s also about training the next generation to have the resources to succeed in the business of farming.
Edick’s first program was Milk Money in 2012 which has gotten 12 Hudson Valley school districts to stock their cafeterias with locally produced milk that’s fresher for the kids — and also purchased at a rate that allows the farmers a living wage (which they don’t receive selling off their stock to big dairy).
FarmOn! grew quickly because of her corporate acumen for bringing in big-name partners and funding. In 2014, the year Edick bought the farm, they partnered with the NBA for “Slam Dunk Your Veggies,” which created school victory gardens and encouraged agricultural entrepreneurship by having kids sell produce they grew (rather than sweets) as fundraisers.
“If you give kids a seed and they plant it and they grow a carrot, and then they make lunch with that carrot, you can change the way they look at food for the rest of their life,” Edick said.
The organization also worked with the Bronx Zoo to create a garden exhibit where visitors can learn about the food chain that underpins what we eat, from the worm in the soil to the chickens’ feed. The idea translated: “you are what they eat.”
FarmOn! also recently partnered with Google to create the Putting Farms on the Map program, which helps people locate and support the farms in their community. Google is matching all donations that come in through the site and donates $10 for every hour a volunteer works at the farm.
Edick said getting Google to come in has really made a difference in bringing tech together with local farmers. While farmers aren’t always the most tech savvy, she said anything that can make things run faster or help the bottom line is a win, whether it’s a management computer program or just updating an old flip phone.
There is also a lot of youth programming at the 220-acre farm itself where they don’t just teach about food and wellness, but the details of how to run a farm.
“We show them that this is not a hobby,” Edick said. “It’s a business that can and should be rewarding. We want to see a world where sustainable, responsible farming is profitable.”
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