Lead NY is for committed leaders in the agriculture and food sectors who wish to step up and make a difference in their community. Whitney Beaman, a member of LeadNY's current class 18, reflects on her career journey from food science to sustainable management in the wine industry. Whitney's career path is demonstrative of the impact that LeadNY has had on professionals in New York State.
As a member of the Millennial cohort of LeadNY, I often wonder what my career could have been like if I were born a generation or two earlier. I entered college during the 2008 financial crisis and faced a weak job market upon graduating. I earned a dual degree in Food Science and Viticulture and Enology from Cornell University. My parents thought that I would never make a living in the wine industry, so I went to work in food science. My entry level salary in food science was just enough to graze the living wage threshold for Tompkins County, making me one of the lucky ones. Many of my friends graduated to unpaid internships. After a year of formulating everything from jalapeno cheddar cheese sauce to vitamins that dissolve on your tongue, I decided it was time for a change. I wanted to work in an aspect of food that was more connected with agriculture, so I began looking for harvest internships in the wine industry.
Eventually, I landed at Bedell Cellars on the North Fork of Long Island. My first vintage was 2012, which also happened to be the year when Hurricane Sandy devastated Long Island. I remember frantically hustling to get all the fruit in before it was too late. My rented bungalow flooded, and travel was restricted due to a gas shortage. The harvest internship that was supposed to evolve into a full-time position abruptly ended. This was when I realized that my career would be a series of fits and starts. After bouncing around to a few different jobs, including a marketing internship for Joseph Carr and Josh Cellars, I finally ended up back at Bedell in a wholesale position. This was the beginning of a seven-year stint where I worked my way up to Director of Strategy and Business Development. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many businesses, we struggled to adapt to a host of new restrictions and employees who were afraid to come to work. Thankfully, I had worked in every aspect of the business at that point, so I was leveraging online sales, driving the forklift, packing boxes, and selling wine curbside.
It came as a shock when I was laid off in June after our PPP loan ran out. I had never been laid off before, and unemployment did not sit well with me. I immediately began applying to every winery on the North Fork. I had dozens of interviews and zero offers. I finally took a position as a hostess in a nearby tasting room and eventually moved on to cleaning tanks in the cellar. For a while it was great. I was so relieved to be back to work. However, as the months wore on, it became harder for me to justify a career move from an executive role with a graduate degree to just cleaning tanks. I remember telling Larry that LeadNY was my only remaining connection to a professional network, and I needed it more than ever.
Not long after that, Larry alerted me to a job opening for a Long Island Organic Transition Educator with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-NY), helmed by Executive Director, Bethany Wallis (Class 11). The application was due the next day, and I jumped on it. The role involves helping farmers of all kinds achieve USDA Organic Certification. Joining NOFA-NY was the best decision I made in 2020. I was welcomed onto a team where every individual is kind, skilled, reliable, and happy to do their job. LeadNY culture shines through this organization, and it was a healing experience after what I had been through over the past year
Another six months later I was brought into the fold of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, helmed by Executive Director, Sam Filler (Class 16). In the role of Sustainability Program Manager, I will be helping the Foundation create a cutting-edge sustainable wine growing certification for New York State. It is thrilling to be part of team that is innovating the wine industry and setting the bar for good environmental stewardship. I often joke with Larry that I am the “poster child” for LeadNY career transition, as I find myself under the wing of not one, but two, LeadNY alumni helping farmers across the state adopt environmental best practices.
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