“Many of our students were drinking Hudson Valley Fresh milk at home,” says Sandra J. Gardner, public information officer at Taconic Hills Central Schools in Columbia County‘s Craryville. “This initiative really got started when they started asking for better tasting milk to be served in our school lunch program.”
Integrating local supply chains with major institutions that practice economies of scale is notoriously difficult. Policies requiring contracts be awarded to the low bidder are hard to challenge in tough economic times. But the kids, parents, and health-oriented staff of Taconic Hills—a school that has its own garden and greenhouse—had a strong ally in Tessa Edick, a wellness committee member whose résumé put her in the perfect position to help.
Edick is a dynamic redhead with boundless energy and a gift for making connections that is surpassed only by her culinary chops. She is the founder of Culinary Partnership and two nonprofits, Friends of the Farmer and FarmOn! Foundation, which she describes as the natural outgrowth of her career in gourmet production and marketing. Prior to creating the partnership, she led her company Sauces ‘n Love Inc. to 13 Sofi awards, “the Oscars of specialty foods,” as she puts it, and millions in revenues.
Now Edick, a relocated New Englander, has devoted her evangelical passion and gift for glamour to the Hudson Valley locavore scene. Taconic Hills kids wanted Hudson Valley Fresh, and Tessa Edick leveraged her various partnerships to make it happen.
The milk the kids have gotten so fond of is produced by a nine-farm dairy cooperative* founded in 2005 by former state assemblyman Patrick Manning and Dr. Sam Simon, a onetime Middletown dairy farm kid who’d spent 22 years doing orthopedic surgery before going back to the farm—just at the moment when many were leaving it for good.
“New York State’s rural economies are dependent on the survival of the dairy industry,” said the state comptroller’s office in a 2010 report. “These farms provide economic benefits, preserve open space, and are an integral part of rural life.”
That report, entitled “New York’s Dairy Farms In Crisis,” paints a bleak picture of the viability of this crucial sector. In the latter half of the last decade, milk prices tanked dramatically, and traditional “milk cooperatives’ were paying farmers $11.50 per hundredweight for milk that cost them at least $17 per hundredweight to produce. The comptroller’s report mentions price supports, a pittance in USDA aid that “did not compensate for the tremendous losses suffered,” and something called the Herd Buyout Program, which was discontinued in 2010 just as its proponents —dairy giants like Dairylea and Land O’Lakes, under the cozy moniker Cooperatives Working Together—faced increasing scrutiny over price-fixing and needless slaughter.
The damage has been deep. Another report, this one by the nonprofit the Local Economies Project, concludes that the Hudson Valley has lost 70% of its dairy farms since 1987. Dr. Simon was motivated to start a farm by his experiences in both farming and medicine. “As an orthopedic surgeon, I saw people in their 30s with bones you’d expect in people in their 70s,” he says, “and it comes down to lack of dairy. There is no calcium supplement you can take in old age that makes up for an early deficiency.”
Hudson Valley Fresh began with two farms, one of them Simon’s own, and since has grown to nine, located throughout Columbia, Dutchess, and Ulster counties. Standards are strict. “In dairy farming, cleanliness is everything,” says Simon. “There are farms with 40 cows that are s^&*holes, and farms with 4,000 cows that do a good job on that.” Milk cleanliness is measured via testing for somatic cell count—somatic cells are the white blood cells that develop in response to bacteria—and HV Fresh holds its producers to a standard of under 200,000 per milliliter, less than a third of what the USDA considers allowable and less than half of what you’ll find at most organic and traditional dairies.
The difference doesn’t stop there. HV Fresh cows get a varied diet featuring lots of hay, which— partly because of the hay itself, and partly because of the thorough chewing it encourages—makes the milk higher in omega-3 fatty acids. No artificial bovine hormones are allowed. The milk is pasteurized simply and not “ultra-pasteurized” at the scalding temperature of 280 degrees Fahreheit, a process bigger dairy operations use, which sacrifices flavor and nutrition for longer shelf life and “safety” concerns (that are only an issue when there are higher somatic cell counts).Beyond that, HV Fresh promises consumers “cow to carton in 36 hours.” That part of the process takes place at the family-owned Boice Brothers Dairy in Kingston, where they recently celebrated their first century in the business by using over a ton of ice cream to craft the world’s longest ice cream sundae.
HV Fresh dairy products meet kosher standards and are beloved by gourmet Manhattan coffee shops, where the quality of the milk in the latte is what keeps ‘em coming back. It’s no shock that kids who were used to it at home began to lobby for it at school; “Like Breyers’ chocolate ice cream in a glass,” is how one satisfied customer describes HV Fresh chocolate milk.
In return for the exacting labor of cleaning and milking the 5,000 cows that are their collective responsibility, HV Fresh pays farmers a price that covers the cost of production When milk cost $17 a hundredweght to produce, and the big co-ops were paying $11.50, HV Fresh paid farmers $20.
“It should tell you something,” observes Simon, “that even the New York State Department of Corrections, with free labor and tax-exempt land, decided they couldn’t afford to run a dairy anymore.”
Good nutrition in school cafeterias has gained enormous momentum with a federal mandate, and Edick decided FarmOn! resources would be well expended in helping districts bridge the gap between the cost of conventional milk and the HV Fresh product the kids preferred. Taconic Hills wrote a health and wellness addendum to district bylaws that allowed them to deviate from standard purchasing procedure, and FarmOn! did the rest.
“The vendor we used previously would charge us $0.27 a carton,” explains Gardner, “and this coming year, Hudson Valley Fresh will charge us $0.30 per carton of fat free chocolate milk. Farm On! Foundation has agreed to supplement the 3 cent differential. This is the second year Farm On! Foundation has supported the school’s initiative to support local milk consumption. Our a la carte consumption has increased 18.7% from the 2012/2013 to 2013/2014 school year.” Edick and Dr. Simon say the district’s overall milk consumption is up 300 percent.FarmOn! has sponsoring partners, among them Whole Foods, the state government (via TasteNY), and the Local Economies Project of the New World Foundation, along with a few smaller private companies; the organization collaborates with Cornell on educational programs. But Edick’s gift for lending farming the glamour that she feels it deserves makes her a powerhouse fundraiser in and of herself. An event entitled “Play With Fire” on August 17 brought 10 celebrity chefs and 6 acclaimed mixologists to the fields of Fish and Game Farm in Hudson, where they prepared locally sourced delicacies and libations for guests who paid $250 apiece and up for the pleasure. Earlier this summer, a Hootenanny at the Copake Country Club brought in over $60,000 for the nonprofit’s cause: making sure that the next generation understands food.
“People say they can’t afford to eat locally,” says Edick, “But I think they need to analyze it a little differently. What does it cost to be sick? To miss time from work? What do you pay for supplements and prescriptions? People need to take one simple step: Go to the farm. Meet the farmer and come to an understanding of what real food actually is, how it’s produced, and what it tastes like.”
All are invited to do just that on September 27, as FarmOn! celebrates its fourth Friends of the Farmer Hudson Valley Food Lovers Festival. This year they’ve got a lot to celebrate: the creation of an agricultural community center at the 217-acre Empire Farm, where all are invited to shop the Locavore Village, drink locally produced libations (milk included) and taste-test all kinds of locally grown delights while checking out the new facility. Adults pay $15 a head, but kids get in free (in keeping with the FarmOn mission) and will enjoy interactive farming activities and games and a performance by a Disney musical artist.
Taconic Hills is currently one of three school districts receiving the milk subsidy. Edick plans to expand that number to 15, and get HV Fresh milk onto SUNY campuses as well. “Tessa’s a powerhouse,” says Dr. Simon. “Farmers are lucky she came to live here; so are the schoolkids.”
That slurping sound you hear? Thousands of milk cartons being emptied to the dregs.
*Correction to printed article: Hudson Valley Fresh is no longer a nonprofit, but rather an LLC (for profit), in which all of the farmers are equal partners