Women in Food: Tessa Edick and FarmOn! Corral Capital For Hudson Valley Ag Programs
July 12, 2016 | Anne Craig
When Tessa Edick was a young girl, she spent visits to her grandmother’s dairy farm in upstate New York pining over a big city life in which she would have her own elegant law office and manicured, dirt-free fingernails.
“Honestly, we were broke, and it was just smelly and embarrassing,” she says. “I wanted glamor and success. But a funny thing called life happened.”
As she grew into an ambitious communications professional, Edick found an unlikely synergy between her early farm experiences and her love of boutique culture. Beginning with her own label of specialty jarred sauces–Sauces N’ Love—that ended up selling in 4,000 stores nationally within its first five years, Edick continued to carve out a niche for herself as a food product development pro. She created lines for Tom Colicchio, Todd English, and several major retail companies, and in 2010 established her own consulting and development company called Culinary Partnership that offers everything from co-packing to TV production services.
It was around this time that Edick had begun weekending in Copake, N.Y., just a few miles from the western borders of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where she incidentally reconnected with the farming world of her youth in a new way. Somewhat shyly at first, she began getting to know local farmers and their products, and felt compelled to tell a story that she noticed farmers weren’t telling for themselves.
“People would come to my dinner parties and say they had never tasted anything like it, and I knew it was the farmers,” she says. “But the farmers didn’t know how to do that marketing. How could they? They’re too busy.”
She began writing a biweekly Meet Your Farmer column in the local community newspaper, the Register Star, and putting a lot of thought into the supply chain she saw around her. The deeper Edick was lured into Hudson Valley’s food scene, the more she discovered a local food system that could benefit from the kind of networking she excelled at. In 2010 she sold her interest in Sauces ‘n Love and launched the FarmOn! Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Culinary Partnership that focuses on forging sustainable connections between farms, restaurants, and funding streams.
If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you plucked a successful, high-energy brand developer off the streets of Manhattan and dropped her in the middle of rural New York, FarmOn! may be it. By combining the raw momentum of the local food movement with Edick’s proven entrepreneurial savvy, the FarmOn! Foundation created a bridge between local agriculture and economic development that unites talented players from two sectors that often operate as opposites. From its home base on the historic, 300-acre Empire Farm in Copake, the organization runs a CSA program for local and New York City chefs, a produce, meat, and dairy share program with ABC Kitchen, and the FarmOn! Ag Academy, which offers year-round educational programs in conjunction with Cornell School of Agriculture and the State University of New York. The foundation also oversees a variety of other youth initiatives that include a school garden, farm-to-school program, for-credit college farming internships, summer camps, and a school milk project that has boosted local dairy farm revenues by $1 million through new purchasing agreements with local schools.
But it’s not necessarily the foundation’s programming that makes it unique, as much as it is Edick’s realistic, by-the-numbers attitude toward working in local food systems development.
Though she targets local, small-scale partners as beneficiaries of FarmOn!’s work, Edick also pursues supporting partnerships with major companies like Disney and the NBA, entities that aren’t usually synonymous with small, sustainable food systems.
“Somebody has to forge the connections and make the systems sustainable,” she says. “Thinking about sustainability in terms of profit is why we’re different in terms of healthy food. Farmers have to make money to survive and kids have to love what they are eating, and I try to offer opportunities for people to move through the experience, rather than standing there with a megaphone. Empire Farm is a way for these ideas to come to life.”
For not having a megaphone, Edick has done a tremendous job getting people to listen. The foundation’s recent FarmOn! Gotham event hosted 150 people at the Gotham Bar and Grill in Greenwich Village and included an auction that sold tickets to the musical “Hamilton,” first-class round trip tickets to Singapore, and a weekend on the farm with a James Beard Award winning chef. Later this month Edick will put on FarmOn!’s Sixth Anniversary Hoot, a gala and family-style feast serving up local eats to 500 guests alongside 100 guest farmers at a ticket price of $165 per adult.
With FarmOn! garnering this kind of support, Edick the systems thinker and entrepreneur is beginning to look toward the next place in the food system FarmOn! can stimulate, with an eye toward addressing what she sees as a major looming challenge: succession.
“Where my heart really is right now is getting that next generation [of farmers] lined up, but in a way where they aren’t just going out there broadcasting seeds and hoping folks will buy CSA shares,” she says. “To be truly sustainable, we need a paradigm shift. Young people need the entrepreneurial and business skills to approach farming as a viable career where they may not get rich, but will see return on their investment.”
Though Edick’s intense, borderline corporate mentality may make some local foodies cringe, it’s hard to deny the impact it’s had on the current and future Hudson Valley agriculture scene. Accordingly, Edick makes no apologies about her approach. With her whirlwind of energy and coalition building skills, she’s established an institution that’s poised to support farms like the one she visited as a child, bring more healthy food to New Yorkers’ tables, and prepare a new wave of growers to keep the food coming.
“Someone has to go after the money and get it,” says Edick. “That’s where my mission lies: in the economic development we need to connect the rural and urban marketplaces. We have Ralph Lauren Home coming in to assist us. When you bring revered brands like that to a farm it’s unexpected. It raises the bar. You have to fundraise from a place of strength, and keep it outcome-based and meaningful. And when I have 30 parents writing to me saying their kids came home talking nonstop about farming, fell sound asleep at 8 p.m. and jumped out of bed at 6 a.m. raring to go, I feel like I’m on the right track.”