Photo by Pete DeMola
Essex Farm Institute Founder Mark Kimball shares a moment with Executive Director Michele Drozd and Rep. Elise Stefanik during a tour of the 1,200 acre facility earlier this month.
ESSEX — Lightning flickered across a bruise-colored sky. Thunder rumbled; the party paused, the air quivered with tension and eventually, Mark Kimball bounded through the shimmering green rows and dusted himself off.
Several minutes later, he’d helped tame a spooked horse. Now, he plucked a broccoli stem from the earth and made quick work of it with his knife, handing out thumb-sized chunks to the group who’d come to tour his operation.
“Before you tour the farm, we’ve got to feed you,” said Kimball.
And then it started, a tornado of ideas:
Shifts in global climate patterns. Education gaps. Funding solutions. Farms as incubators for young talent. Safety nets. Dating, the global economy…
Essex Farm is the granddaddy of the revitalized local farm movement.
Since its formation in 2003, the full-diet, 1,200-acre organic operation has trained and mentored over 50 beginning farmers, 10 of whom have spun off to start their own farms right here in the neighborhood.
More than 250 local families participate in their CSA program — shares, if you will, in exchange for weekly grocery pickups, with Fridays becoming a weekly social event in this verdant pocket of Essex County with views of both the High Peaks and the Green Mountains.
It’s all promising. As such, Kimball and his wife, Kristen, decided, it was time to formalize that expertise so that when young upstarts venture out onto their own, they emerge resilient and equipped with the tools necessary for success.
A rising tide lifts all boats, they say.
That’s the goal of the Essex Farm Institute.
What are some of the challenges facing the farming community?
“How many challenges do you want to list?” laughed Kristen.
One big thing, said Mark, is coming up with productive business and agriculture strategies.
“Our goal is trying to figure out how to bring people together,” said Mark.
This isn’t a red state-blue state thing, said the Swarthmore College grad, noting that everyone in the community leans on each other despite where they fall on the political spectrum. It’s a matter of survival. As such, he said, policy needs to be bipartisan.
Mark cited a ruby-red neighbor with whom he swaps equipment back and forth.
“I voted for Nader,” he noted.
Other challenges include creating new markets and job growth, which will, in turn, create spinoffs to sustain thriving communities — like the pair of food trucks who have been cruising the county this summer.
Those amenities, in turn, aid in attracting newcomers.
And then there’s the classic economic question of making local food more affordable while also ensuring a living wage for their workers.
“Can we bring price points down?” asked Mark. “What are the steps?”
Mark, who has been in the farming biz for nearly two decades, called for a business institute that would sit with farms and strategically hash out long-term partnerships with long and short term investment strategies.
Essex Farm might be eligible for up to $2 million annually, said Mark, but there’s no time to write grants.
Doing so would help with a multitude of issues, from land affordability to loan access.
Joe Orefice, a Saranac farmer who sits on the institute’s board, said land affordability is another big issue that often gets overlooked when it comes to helping upstarts.
The nation also needs to think big on the future of ag: perhaps even a massive shift of production away from drought-stricken California, where much of the nation’s crops are produced, to the North Country is needed, said Orefice.
Another goal of the Essex Farm Institute is to create and sustain a robust alumni program.
Mark envisions a social safety net that will encompass everything from education to dating.
“I can step out of a dumpster naked in New York City, look you in the eye and say, ‘I need clothes in 15 minutes so I can go get a job at McDonald’s,’” said Kimball. “I can do that because I have an education.”
The institute’s executive director, Michele Drozd, said there’s a misconception that many young farmers have it easy because they’re trust fund kids.
But that’s not the case.
“Entrepreneurs succeed because they’re brave,” said Drozd.
The Kimballs led the group, which included Rep. Elise Stefanik, to a patch of tomatoes, which they picked and passed out.
“Luck favors the bold,” said Stefanik. Recent visits to universities within the district, she said, revealed that gobs of kids want to strike it out on their own.
Mark likened young farmers to the dot-com revolution in the 1990s: a bunch of people sitting in garages with computers.
Anything is possible, he said.
“We’re going to farm until we drop.”
Join the Kimballs and other local farmers at Essex Farm on Saturday, Aug. 15 at 10 a.m. for a tour and potluck lunch. Find them on Facebook for more information.