by Brian PJ Cronin

There’s a radio in the corner – next to the wet-dry vac – playing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” as Tessa Edick walks through the gutted interior of this hundred-year-old farm house and points out where the community gathering space will be, where the test kitchen will be, and where the eight students due to move in some time around May will be sleeping. It’s a fitting and serendipitous song choice to underscore Edick as she explains how the Farm On Foundation – the five year old non-profit organization she founded – seeks to give the farmers of tomorrow the respect, education, and support they need in order to wean our country off of the industrial food system. “When we allocate our food dollars responsibly for our health and our communities, we lift our farmers up and help to return farming to a noble profession,” she explains. “One that actually makes money. This idea that there is no money to be made in farming is a myth.”

Making money. That’s an important detail that usually gets left out of the dewey-eyed paens that urge young people to get back to the land and take up a life of farming. But if a farm can’t make money, it’s not going to be around for very long. If farmers really want to be sustainable, they’re going to have to be profitable.

Edick herself writes frequently and well about how supporting local agriculture improves our personal health and the health of our communities, including her new book, “Hudson Valley Food and Farming: Why Didn’t Anyone Ever Tell Me That?” But the Farm On Foundation is where the rubber meets the road; where future farmers learn not just about crop rotations and heirloom tomatoes but also business plans and profit margins. And here, on this 220 acre Copake farm that Henry Astor III once built a racetrack on, the Foundation will finally have the space needed to put its ideas into practice.

“The idea of the entire farm is to be a connector to agriculture for the community as a farm academy, student housing, community center, and a victory garden, she said. “We’re inviting everyone in the community to come and be a part of resilient agriculture.”

Empire Farm, Copake, NY. Photo courtesy T. Edick.

Empire Farm, Copake, NY. Photo courtesy T. Edick.

Students, who can gain college credit for the program through SUNY, will live on the farm from May through September. The timing works out as a kind of summer program for students, although she’d eventually like to have them view it as a semester abroad and live on the farm from January through September. That way, they can learn about the critical off-season planning process that typically sets a farm up for success or failure next year.

But even by only working during the growing season, the apprentices will still become something that the Hudson Valley needs badly: Young, shovel ready farmers. The average age of a Hudson Valley farmer is 58. Many of them do not have children or apprentices of their own who are willing to continue farming on their land. Real estate developers stop by waving big checks, and it’s tempting to simply cash out and enjoy a well-deserved retirement. Which makes this particular moment in time, when current farmers are aging off of their land but young people are showing a renewed interest in where their food comes from, a critical one if farming in the Hudson Valley is going to continue to be a viable economic engine. As Edick explains, the consequences of not finding and educating the next generation of local farmers could be dire.

“If we don’t do that we’re left at the mercy of big food feeding us via factories and practices that we might not want,” she said. “And then we lose control. Right now we have barns that are still active, kids that want to learn and opportunities that are upon us. But once those barns collapse they don’t come back. They go to development; they go to gentlemen farmers; to the 1%. And we lose an opportunity to revitalize farming.”

To that end, the Farm On Foundation isn’t just about educating young farmers. It’s about educating those who have the two things that young farmers need the most – money and land – on the importance of local food economies. And it’s about educating consumers so that there will be people to buy those foods once they’re harvested.

Edick herself has seen first hand how supporting local agriculture can transform a community. She got her start launching jarred sauces made from locally sourced ingredients in 1999. “That changed economies as we grew in scale,” she said. “I saw how important that was. I could have been the fat pig and taken all the profits for myself but decided that a distribution of the wealth through procurement of the right ingredients needed to make the food would be better suited to everyone.”

So Edick knows what it means to put the economic health of others ahead of her own, which gives her a unique perspective when speaking to those who have land that could be used for farming. “You have to have a certain personality mesh to make it viable,” she admits. “And you have to eliminate the fickleness that wealth sometimes brings, the ‘maybe, maybe not,’ mentality. But coming closer to your food source as landowner, getting that agricultural tax credit, and giving farmers a livelihood is worth investing in.”

And those without land to give and who don’t know a cow from a cowpea should still consider stopping by the farm’s 15 acre victory garden once it’s up and running in the spring. The term “victory garden” refers to the small-scale gardens that citizens were encouraged to plant during the world wars to create food independence and free up the public food supply to support the troops overseas. We may not be in a world war now, but with food sheds and regional food independence hot topics once again, it’s a good time for anyone and everyone to hoe a row or two and find out what something that you just pulled out of the earth with your own hands tastes like.

“Education is most real through experience,” says Edick. “When that experience is through food, because fresh nutritious food tastes better, your taste is a sensory catalyst to get involved, to eat better, to find out where your food comes from. So if you’re not going to plant a garden yourself with your kids, then come here to Farm On, get involved with pulling a plant out of the ground and eating it. And then see what that does to you.”

Brian PJ Cronin is a freelance writer in Beacon, NY. You can find him online at brianpjcronin.com and on Twitter as @brianpjcronin.

 
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