Tessa Edick ’92 hopes to revolutionize the way New Yorkers eat to save local farming, improve nutrition and build stronger communities.
With more than a third of all farmers in America over the age of 65 and the percentage of farmers younger than 35 steadily declining to now less than 5.6 percent, one Oswego graduate is asking: Who is going to feed us in the future? Where will our food come from?
On a brisk, sunny day in January, Tessa Edick ’92 throws on her fur-hooded coat and fingerless knit mittens, with her long red locks secured under a matching knit hat, to check on the status of several priorities on the Empire Farm in the Hudson Valley’s Copake, N.Y.
As she heads out of the farm’s main office, her 11-month-old English Mastiff puppy, Trudie, darts out to lead the way to the nearby farmhouse. This farmhouse has been gutted for renovation, and will soon feature four bedrooms with private baths, a large seminar room, a commercial teaching kitchen and a food prep room. It will be the central hub for the Ag Academy, a joint venture of Edick’s FarmOn! Foundation with the State University of New York and Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Science to provide applied learning experiences to college students that connect agriculture and entrepreneurship, and Camp FarmOn!, a one-week summer camp where kids pitch their profitable agricultural solutions to a panel of venture capitalists.
From the farmhouse, she nimbly navigates a few icy patches in her high-heel wedge boots and ducks into the chicken barn, careful not to let the curious puppy enter with her. She greets the flock of chickens and scoops up six eggs—a variety of colors and sizes corresponding to the different breeds, she explains.
In her skinny jeans and silver-polished nails, Edick describes her look as “farm chic,” which could also be the moniker for how she is revolutionizing the farming industry and the public perception of farming in New York State. She has carved out a career that combines her passion for locally grown, healthy food with her acumen for changing opinions and motivating action, with sophistication—a “food entrepreneur,” she says.
Through her nonprofit organization FarmOn Foundation!, Edick hopes to fill the farming succession gap by inspiring the next generation to choose agricultural careers, creating an economic engine that connects the rural and urban marketplaces and raising awareness about local food choices through education and community-building.
Being back on a farm is a homecoming of sorts for the Syracuse, N.Y., native—one that she didn’t envision for herself when she was just starting out.
Creating Her Own Possibilities
As a child, Edick handmade her Barbie doll’s clothes, selling tickets to friends and family for the hottest fashion show of the year. At Lourdes Camp on Skaneateles Lake, she discovered by selling her candy to fellow campers instead of eating it herself, she could earn enough money to buy a camp T-shirt, shorts or other gear and still have cash leftover.
“I guess that was the first sign of entrepreneurial thinking,” said Edick, the oldest of three children.
Raised by a single mother who worked several jobs, she spent much of her free time and summers at her maternal grandparents’ dairy farm in Jefferson County. Family members had their own Mason jar salt shaker to take with them to the vegetable garden so they could snack as they worked.
Processed foods, sodas and meat from the grocery store never made their way onto the family table. But the farming life was hard, and she saw collapsing barns, families struggling to survive and a lifestyle that she didn’t want.
“We were poor and farm life was smelly and broke, and I didn’t want anything to do with it,” she said. “I wanted to make money, have glamour and success.”
When it came time to think about college, her mother suggested that she attend SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. But Edick decided she wanted to become a lawyer and attended SUNY Oswego as a communication studies major.
Edick developed her event planning and community organizing skills as the social chair for her sorority, Sigma Delta Tau, and through organizing a United Way walk-a-thon for a public relations class project. She tended bar at The Sting and saved all her money to fund backpacking trips throughout Europe during her summers.
“I was her big sister when she pledged, and just fell in love with her from day one,” said sorority sister Kerry McAleer ’90. “She’s a warm, smart, passionate and fun person. She was always full of energy, and I knew she would be successful at whatever she set out to do.”
Following graduation, Edick headed to Boston and enrolled at Suffolk University Law School. Then her world turned upside down.
“My mother died in a car accident,” she said. “People always feel sorry for you when you lose someone close to you. You lose unconditional love, but you gain a perspective early on that most people take half their lives to figure out. You get to see life differently because what’s important is so apparent, so quickly. You have no choice. You can’t just expect that things are going to be done for you.
“I think there’s a real gift in that,” she said. “It gives you a real advantage competitively to thinking and resource-finding and really digging into make something come to fruition. You have to flower.”
Finding Her Own Way in the World
Having dropped out of law school to handle family matters, she returned to Boston to find a new path. Through a SUNY Oswego connection, Edick landed a job with American Council International Studies (ACIS), an educational travel company in Boston.
Able to speak Italian and French, Edick excelled in an executive assistant job that took her to big cities around the globe and also befriended company founder and president Peter Jones, who mentored and supported her.
“She was an incredible avenue to creativity,” Jones said. “She was always ahead of the game and always got things done. She pushed me, and every day I wondered what new ideas would come flying in my door. She has ‘entrepreneur’ stamped all over her.”
Edick started a scholarship program, a photography contest and an online store for the company, which created a special projects position for her to encourage her lucrative innovations.
“The day she quit, I hugged her and smiled,” Jones said. “I knew we had caged her and had to let her go. She’s a remarkable person with an incredible energy, and I knew she would find great success.”
During this time, she met her now estranged husband who was studying at Boston University. Together, they launched a pasta sauce company, called Sauces ’n Love Inc. Pulling from her agrarian roots, she decided to source the tomatoes, basil and other ingredients from local farmers, not from a can.
“I realized that when you scale and grow, you can take those people with you and share the wealth,” she said. “And when you do well and your community does well, then everyone does well—which is the exact opposite
of how I grew up in economic depression.”
Her company and its naturally farm-sourced product garnered 16 National Association for the Specialty Food Association awards, known in the industry as the Oscars of food, and was featured in Oprah Magazine’s “O” list twice, among 200 other national media outlets.
To reach a volume needed for profitability, her company started to co-pack or privately label their sauce for other chefs, which laid the groundwork for Edick’s later venture, Culinary Partnership, a branding and consulting company.
She believed in her product, which was organic and packaged in a BPA-free container long before that became trendy, and she wanted to bring the nutritionally dense sauce into Boston area schools.
“We were giving sauce to the lunch rooms and some of them couldn’t even use it because we were not a source approved in the system under the USDA. It just wasn’t working and I was like, ‘how is it, you can’t give kids better food?’”
Frustrated by the system, challenges in her marriage and lack of progress in improving children’s nutrition, she moved to Europe. She visited farms and food-related businesses, and started culinary tours for chefs with ACIS’s Italian partner.
She purchased a vacation home in the Hudson Valley with childhood friend and interior designer, Thom Filicia of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” TV series fame, and sold her half of the company.
Giving Everyone a Seat at the Table
Together, they hosted dinner parties centered around cooking and eating, all sourced by produce and meat from local farmers.
“Everyone was commenting, ‘Oh the food is so good,’” she said. “And I would say, ‘You shouldn’t thank me. You should thank the farmer.’
“For seven years, I would stop by Sir William Farm down the road, take meat out of the freezer and put money in the honor box,” Edick said. “The farmer never spoke to me—in my fancy truck, in my fancy shoes, some fancy New Yorker. He didn’t want anything to do with me. He’d give an obligatory wave or nod every now and then.”
So imagine his surprise when Edick in all her “fanciness” showed up at his doorstep pitching an idea to organize a “Friends of the Farmer Festival.”
“I have a lot of respect for her,” said farmer Bruce Conover, owner of Sir William Farm. “She’s working with cantankerous farmers like me, but she’s just as feisty as I am, which is I guess why we can work together. She’s trying to recruit the next generation of farmers, and that’s an uphill battle. But at least she’s trying.”
Over the next few months, Edick visited hundreds of farms, recruiting farmers to participate in the festival and providing tips on getting their preserves, jams, cookies, ice cream and other products to market, pro bono.
“Farmers are always working,” Edick said. “They struggle to get their food to market. They aren’t keyed into trends for labeling or merchandising. They don’t write business plans or understand what margins yield. Are they making profits?”
An idea was starting to formulate in Edick’s mind. She wanted to find a way to promote honest and responsible food, combine agricultural and entrepreneurial training for the next generation of farmers and create impactful food experiences.
Building on the success of the first Friends of the Farmer Festival, she founded the FarmOn! Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization and public charity.
Today, the foundation employs three full-time and two part-time staff members, owns and runs the 217-acre Empire Farm (thanks to the generosity of the C.J. Mack Foundation) and hosts a robust list of events and programs (See page 23).
Funding for these programs comes from a variety of sources: donors, events, auctions, corporate sponsors, grants and partnerships.
“It’s a lot of me going and pouring my heart out to people, saying, ‘I really believe in this. Do you, too? And if you do, can you help underwrite this educational program for youth?’”
And Edick delivers a convincing pitch. She lives by a 70-30 rule, so she eats local food and purchases local goods 70 percent of the time.
“You can’t ‘should’ people about what to eat,” she said. “You have to give them the food and let them choose.
“Food from your local farm tastes better because it is better. Fresher food has more nutrients and satisfies your body, so you end up eating less.”
A highlight of the year is the annual hootenanny fundraiser that is hosted at Empire Farm, and features food and drink sourced within 5 miles of the table and prepared by celebrity chefs from New York City.
“We invite those farmers as our guests to come sit at the table for a ‘meet your farmer’ experience as folks shake the hands that feed them,” she said. “You eat together. The chic part of it is having Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at your event and leverage that notoriety to build excitement and sell tickets to benefit farmers. The truth is that it compels you to continue in a FarmOn! lifestyle with a connection to the farmer at the table who gets up at 4 a.m. everyday to feed you.”
This combination of truth and glamour has attracted some significant attention from nearby Albany. She recently served as a SUNYCON 2015 speaker in New York City, and was tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to serve on the New York State Council on Food Policy and Food Certification Task Force to develop and recommend food standards for claims with production, marketing and distribution guidelines.
“I was so proud to hear Tessa speaking about this very important issue at the SUNY-wide conference last fall,” said College President Deborah F. Stanley. “Our campus has also embraced the ‘farm to table’ movement, and sources nearly a third of all our food purchases locally. Tessa’s work with her FarmOn! Foundation reinforces the importance of our food choices and purchases on our health and our local economy.” (See related stories.)
Last year, SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher attended the 2015 FarmOn! Hootenanny and formally announced the Ag Academy and partnership with the foundation’s Empire Farm.
“We are so pleased to be working with the FarmOn! Foundation to bring these learning solutions to our students for a true hands-on experience as they develop their skills and pursue careers in this growing industry,” Zimpher said.
Edick said she looks forward to building the Ag Academy curriculum, expanding fundraising and outreach events, and sharing the messages of FarmOn! through a variety of outlets, including an exhibition at the Bronx Zoo that attracted 600,000 children last year.
“If I had one wish it would be that every single child in America serves on a farm,” she said. “Everything you ever need to know you can learn on the farm: perseverance, patience, understanding, exhaustion, excitement, joy, trouble, hopelessness, satisfaction, math, science, communication and money. Working on a farm would change how children live for the rest of their lives.” As it has Edick.
– Margaret Spillett