01 Dec 2003

Rural Renewal

A Profile of Torrey Reade
by Susan Young


f483648e74d55b8150fd4379ba80c385 Torrey Reade (MBA ’81) says hello to each of the ten vendors at the Salem, New Jersey, farmer’s market. From Al Dolinski, she buys sunflowers. After inquiring “How’s it going?” she can’t resist the heirloom tomatoes from the Hancocks. The corn from Buzby Farm was just picked this morning. While she herself is an organic farmer, Reade is not here to sell the blueberries, asparagus, beef, or lamb she raises at Neptune Farm. She’s here to support the other farmers, and they are here, in large part, because of her. Reade organized the weekly market to help the farmers sell their wares, to make local produce available to locals, and to revitalize the town’s Main Street, a modest collection of struggling businesses.

Reade’s “retirement” after a successful career in the investment business was gradual and accidental. Seeking a vacation spot, in 1989 she bought a 126-acre farm in Lower Alloways Creek, a region that makes it clear why New Jersey is called the Garden State. She named it Neptune, after the investment business she and a partner ran in New York City. At first it was just a weekend getaway, but then she found herself staying an extra day. Soon she had figured out a way to work two days a week from her country home and eventually left New York for good.

Initially worried that she’d feel isolated in the country, Reade laughs and confides: “I met more people here my first week than in my nine years in New York.” Over the years she has evolved from a curiosity (“What’s a single woman doing buying that old farm?”) to a firmly established member of the community. With a long salt-and-pepper braid snaking down her back and surrounded by her sheep, cows, and land, it’s hard to picture Reade in her previous life. “I was a yuppie,” she admits, sitting in the kitchen she redesigned in a manner that would make Martha Stewart proud — and also gives an outsider a hint that she’s not exaggerating.

During her New York days, Reade specialized in buying and selling firms that had gone bankrupt or were in financial distress — they were underwater, hence the name Neptune. “It was thoroughly engaging intellectually,” says Reade of her years in the investment business. “We were detectives, piecing together the information to figure out the value of basic businesses.” Ultimately, however, she felt dissatisfied, in part because the bankruptcy market became saturated, and she began to think that “the compensation was no longer commensurate with the risks.” With the aim of cutting back on the workload, she and her partner decided to stop raising new funds. At the same time, her growing appreciation of greener spaces was turning into an obsession.

Tribeca Window Boxes

A native of Wayland, Massachusetts, Reade never thought much about gardening as a kid. After earning her MBA and living in New York City for a few years, however, she went looking for geraniums for her window boxes. At the garden store in her Tribeca neighborhood, she got distracted by a tomato plant. Soon she’d covered her fire escape with tomato vines, and when the fire department gently reminded her that wasn’t the purpose of the space, she branched out. “My first community organization project was to get my neighbors to help me build a deck on the roof of our building,” she explains. Hauling bags and bags of dirt up six flights of stairs, Reade soon created an urban sanctuary, complete with flowers, vegetables, and an automatic sprinkler system.

Longing for more, she began looking for a few acres to purchase outside the city. In the southwest corner of New Jersey, 120 miles from Manhattan, she found something special. “I lost my mind when we drove up to this place,” says Reade as she takes a visitor on a tour of the 1706 farmhouse, a large hay-filled barn, a sparse building where she packs the berries and vegetables, a vast flower garden, and the paddocks where her cows and sheep graze. “I immediately told the real estate agent that this was my dream house,” she says shaking her head, still surprised by how she let emotion cloud her usually savvy negotiation skills.

Reade didn’t plan to be a farmer, but for tax purposes she needed her New Jersey residence to be a working farm. She hired some local help to cultivate the land when she first moved in, but soon decided that she needed to do the job herself. The decision to be an organic farm — one that avoided herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers — initially came merely because she didn’t want to pollute her well water. During her first few years, she experimented widely before settling on her current mix of produce and meat. In 1992, the year she received organic certification from the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey, she reconnected with her Carleton College sweetheart, Dick McDermott — after a twenty-year “trial separation” as they like to say — and gained both a business and a domestic partner.

Neptune Farm now maintains three acres of asparagus, two acres of blueberry bushes, 42 Hereford cattle, and 45 Dorset sheep. The animals are all grass-fed, and they are helping to bring the much-neglected soil back to life through rotational grazing. “Nutrients cycle from the grass through our cows and sheep, and wind up back in the soil,” explains Reade.

The global market for organic food and drink increased to $23 billion last year, but the market is inherently local; organic products account for 1 to 2 percent of total food sales in the United States. Reade’s business is mostly wholesale, selling to one organic distributor, two local health-food stores, and two restaurants. “The community of organic farmers is very small,” says Reade, who is clearly proud to be associated with this group that she describes as “very intellectual and certainly not in it for the money.”

Two years ago, Reade reports, “We were thrilled to break $40,000 in revenues.” That number, she explains, is significant in that it enables the farm to qualify for some government grants. Having invested her Wall Street funds wisely, Reade is much better off than most farmers in the area. Presently, she’s working on a book with a fellow organic farmer who also has a business background. Tentatively titled “From the Stock Market to the Farmer’s Market,” Reade hopes the advance from the publisher will pay for a new roof.

Community Activity

Reade is well aware, however, that her financial situation cannot be compared with those in her community. Her biggest embarrassment these days, she says, is the new fence she had built at the entrance to the farm. Lovely and practical to a city outsider, the seemingly simple wooden construction, she explains, is really “over the top” in a country where the median household income hovers around $25,000.

Reade is doing her part to help the local economy gain momentum. Over the years her business skills and concern for her new community have led her to leadership roles in numerous local efforts, from revitalizing Main Street — hence the farmer’s market — to saving historic buildings, to revamping the finances of local companies and nonprofits.

While her involvement has sometimes left her discouraged — “the city of Salem is held together by chewing gum and baling wire,” she notes — she is proud to be an active community member and does not miss New York City. The region’s deep history, which includes a strong Quaker community and active participation in the Underground Railroad, lives on in the buildings that are being restored and in the generations of families who are struggling to get by. “This area is very poor,” she explains, “but the people really care about each other. I had never experienced anything like it until I moved here. Everyone helps each other out.”

Susan Young

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Torrey Reade
Class of MBA 1981, Section I

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