Cornell puts out call for innovation in agribusiness

Cornell University has put out a call for innovators for New York’s agricultural community.

The university this week released a first-of-its-kind report designed to guide inventors and investors toward urgent technology needs within the state’s farming and food processing industries, identified by dozens of farmers, manufacturers, retailers and researchers.

The goal of the report, “Call for Innovation: New York’s Agrifood System,” is to foster regionalization and diversity in the industries by offering evidence-based recommendations and guidance to entrepreneurs looking for opportunities in the agriculture, processing and distribution spaces.

New York state boasts some 13,000 farms and is the second in overall food production, third in wine production and is among the U.S. leaders in dairy products.

Most farms statewide are small, meaning they sell less than $10,000 in agricultural goods or are less than 10 acres in size, but farms are consolidating every year, according to the report. Following a national trend, very small farms in New York and very large farms (those making $1 million or more) are growing in number, while midsize farms are declining.

The state also is a national leader in organic farming and sales, and in selling agricultural products direct to consumer. In 2019, NY ranked third in the nation for number of farms with organic operations — a total of 1,321 farms — a 25 percent increase over 2016.

The USDA Economic Research Service found that in 2019, the agrifood and related industries contributed $1.109 trillion dollars to the U.S. gross domestic product, a 5.2 percent share. New York’s agrifood industry contributed at least $73 billion to the state’s GDP, a total of 4.3 percent of the state’s $1.7 trillion dollar economy.

The state ranks second in the U.S. behind California for food and beverage manufacturing, with an estimated 2,946 plants operating in the state, according to the state Department of Labor. Food and agriculture remain critical pillars to much of New York’s economy, according to the report, particularly in rural areas. While the rural economy of the state has diversified over the last three decades, food and agriculture are significant sources of employment and help to drive the culture and community of many rural areas in the state, especially in areas of Upstate New York.

Robotics, automation, novel crop protection, supply chain and direct marketing advancements are some of the sought-after solutions that have the potential to help New York growers and producers excel further.

“These trends represent problems in search of answers — as well as sectors that have already pulled millions of venture capital dollars into the region — that startups and innovators should notice,” said Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech (COE) Executive Director Cathy Young. “Agriculture exists in every corner of our state, from Western New York to the tip of Long Island. This is a call to build on our agrifood system, which impacts every resident in some way.”

Nationwide, investors have shown an interest in funding solutions for food waste, water quality, climate change mitigation and renewable energy. Other investments are trending toward “midstream” technologies such as food safety and traceability, logistics and transport — all issues that New York farmers, distributors and retailers agreed would improve their operations, the report states.

“This report is an appeal to change agents to increase efficiencies, product freshness, food safety and sustainability,” Young said. “We’re looking for difference-makers who can empower farmers, improve speed-to-market and strengthen customer relationships. Efficiencies like these will enhance the top and bottom lines of New York’s food producers, distributors and retailers, and further strengthen its position as a major producer of agricultural products.”

The study and subsequent report are a collaboration between COE and Grow-NY, a food and ag innovation program presented by Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement (CREA).

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