Young brings rural and legislative know-how to new Center of Excellence

Catharine Young didn’t change much about her living situation when she became head of the new Center of Excellence in Geneva last March.

Catharine Young
Catharine Young

Young had spent 20 years on the road, commuting between her home in Olean and Albany, where she was first a member of the state Assembly and later a state senator. Now that she’s executive director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, she’s still commuting from Olean, but her travel takes her to Geneva instead of Albany.

Representing the southwest part of the state – all 4,000 square miles of it – gave Young deep familiarity with rural issues, which often revolve around agriculture and the need for more economic development in overlooked areas. Her position as head of the Senate Finance Committee also schooled her in budgets and the way the state allocates money.

“She was a great legislator. Nobody worked as hard as Cathy or had a better command of the issues than Cathy,” said Joseph Giglio, the Republican assemblyman who took Young’s Assembly seat. “She’s a wonderful person. She worked hard; she’s always prepared.”

But when the majority of the Senate became Democratic in 2018, the Republican Young felt she wasn’t able to be effective anymore. She announced her resignation from the state Senate in February 2019, effective in March, one day before she began working in Geneva. Though the new job has “New York State” in front of it, Young is now an employee of Cornell University, in a position funded by the state.

Young grew up on a farm in Avon, Livingston County, the daughter of a 1953 Cornell graduate. “I’ve always had a deep respect for Cornell,” she said, and her early years on the farm made her a hard worker.  She also credits her parents with instilling in her a commitment to public service.

“I love public service and I think of this new job as a way to continue the work I did in state government,” Young said.

Her father was a member of the local school board for many years and on the town board, and served as a justice of the peace for 32 years. Her mother, meanwhile, was a math teacher and volunteered at a school and nursing home. Young is proud to say her children have carried on the education tradition; one is a school counselor and the other a special education teacher.

Young and her handful of staff work out of offices in the Cornell Tech Farm, an agribusiness incubator building. Her job involves growing jobs in the agriculture, food and beverage sectors, but she’s charged with going way beyond the four walls or the 70 acres of the Tech Farm.

“We’re a resource that provides connections and leadership if you’re developing a business or growing a business,” Young said. Those resources could be at Cornell, or other universities, she said, or outside of academic settings.

One of the center’s tasks is to help the Tech Farm, adjacent to Cornell AgriTech, (formerly the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station) realize its potential by harnessing opportunities in the Geneva area. “As more companies know about AgriTech, we believe they will want to co-locate to be closer,” she said. They may want to locate in the Tech Farm building or build elsewhere on its property.

Indeed, the big winner of the Grow-NY competition, RealEats America, has said it decided to set up shop in Geneva (in a city incubator) to be close to Cornell’s expertise in food processing and a rich selection of local agricultural suppliers.

Cornell AgriTech also just started a new craft beverage institute that perhaps will prompt more beverage companies to move to the area like RealEats did.

Young is fresh off the job of overseeing the Center of Excellence’s participation in the Grow-NY Agriculture Summit Nov. 12 and 13. She and her staff organized a symposium, including six panel discussions that ran alongside a competition for agriculture and food startups at the summit. Young also was emcee of the symposium.

“She recruited high level professionals and set up the programs so we would attract very good crowds,” said Bill Strassburg, vice president for strategic planning at Wegmans, who has had a hand in creating the Grow-NY initiative, making the Center of Excellence a reality, and in hiring Young. “In fact, the rooms were often greatly filled. I thought the information that came out of the seminars was fantastic and very valuable to the people who were not only viewing it, but also the participants.”

Strassburg continued, “Grow-NY and the Center of Excellence are integral parts of the food and agriculture ecosystem for New York State. I think it’s beneficial for both to work in concert and collaborate and work as a unit.  … partially because of Cathy’s initiative and collaborative skills, they were able to work together to produce a great product for the Grow NY” summit.

He also said Young knows what’s important: “She can get to the heart of an issue quickly, which facilitates a more expedient resolution to the issue.”

Young said there’s still much to learn about the resources that are available to help new businesses grow. “Getting to know all that Cornell offers is a large task. We have so many difference researchers working on life-changing projects. It’s exciting to find out more about their work and how it can translate to the marketplace.”

But while she learns, she also is doing the job of recruiting new companies to start in or move to New York.

“Agriculture is still a huge economic driver for the state. We’re looking to grow the impact,” Young said.

She is reluctant to quantify the impact she hopes to have on the New York economy because of the work she and the Center for Excellence do. But her examples of what she’s working on are on a large scale.

“We want to be able to attract some major companies to New York,” Young said, as well as expand existing relationships.  She noted a company from Brazil will be visiting to talk about establishing a beachhead in the New York market.

Young is also aware of the potential for the state to reclaim some of its agricultural heritage.

“There’s something like 2 million acres of fallow farmland in New York State.  I’d like to get a lot of that back into production. Think about the impact on the state economy then. As we evolve into new business opportunities, it also could mean new crop opportunities. There could be good incentives for people to expand their operations or even get into farming.”

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Catharine M. Young

Title: Executive director, New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture

Age: 59

Residence: Olean, Cattaraugus County, and the Geneva area

Education:  Bachelor’s degree in mass communications, St. Bonaventure University; 1982

Family: Husband, Dick; daughter, Maureen Tramuta; son, Patrick; and three grandchildren

Quote: “I love public service and I think of this new job as a way to continue the work I did in state government.”

Food and agriculture Center of Excellence to be food innovator

Wegmans executive Bill Strassburg likes to think of food and agriculture as the tortoise in the familiar hare and tortoise analogy.

abundance-agriculture-bananas-264537“It’s something that is consistent, and it consistently grows a little bit each year. It’s not a big jump and then a decline the next year. It’s something you can count on and we feel will continue to be a big sector for a long time,” said Strassburg, vice president for strategic planning at Wegmans. Strassburg also sits on the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council.

This week stakeholders in food and agriculture were scheduled to meet to develop initial strategy for a new Center of Excellence in Food and Agriculture coming together in Geneva. The state recently awarded the effort $1 million to get started, with Strassburg and Jan Nyrop, director of Cornell Agritech (formerly known as the N.Y. State Agricultural Experiment Station) as co-leaders.

Though there are 11 other Centers of Excellence in New York, this is the first and only one devoted to food and agriculture.

“It’s the first of its kind in New York. It’s very exciting,” Nyrop said. “We can be recognized as real innovators in food.”

The idea of a center of excellence is to bring together research and commercial experience with public and private investment to stimulate and develop the economy. In this case, the beneficiaries are part of a mostly rural economy that has few other drivers. There’s clearly plenty to develop; Strassburg said 20,000 jobs are already part of this sector, which has experienced a 20 percent increase over the last six years.

Both men said the new center will coalesce and amplify disparate efforts that have been going on for some time to boost the economy in the Finger Lakes.  This is the right place and time, proponents said.

“We have incredibly unique assets,” Nyrop said, noting the region’s fertile soils and experienced food enterprises.

Former State Sen. Michael Nozzolio also added that the Finger Lakes region is within a day’s drive of more than 100 million consumers, and has easy access to one-quarter of the world’s fresh water supply.

Nozzolio describes lead partner Cornell University this way: “… an educational center that has performed world-class research (in food and agriculture) for over 100 years. Cornell has helped the world feed itself, helped New York grow. ”

But while Cornell is aces in the lab and the fields, it doesn’t have much contact with consumers. That’s where places like Wegmans come into play.  And both have had and will continue to have contact with producers and suppliers. But now that effort will be more focused, proponents of the center say.

As an example of what can happen, Strassburg cited Ithaca Hummus. The company, started by a Cornell graduate Chris Kirby, first approached the Wegmans store in Ithaca about selling the locally made product.  But then Wegmans connected Ithaca Hummus with one of its partners, LiDestri in Fairport, the company that makes its own line of sauces and co-packs many of Wegmans’ store-brand products.

LiDestri got Kirby to try High Pressure Processing, a state-of-the-art method of food processing also available at Cornell Agritech that can extend shelf life. The company recently rebranded as Ithaca Cold-Crafted.

HPP also made the hummus creamier, Strassburg noted, upping its quality. “Now he’s selling his product across the state and the U.S. …This is an ecosystem that has helped develop this very successful food product.”

With the new Center of Excellence, its promoters say, this kind of success story would be replicated all the time—not just when someone knew the right person to ask for help or got a lucky break.

“You’re trying to create a one-stop shop to enable people to bring their business to fruition,” Nyrop said. “We have all the pieces, but there’s not a strong focus. No people are dedicated to make this happen.”

Not yet, but some of the $1 million allocated will help hire someone to maintain that focus.

“We like the idea of increasing the number of innovators and entrepreneurs in this industry,” Strassburg said. “There are a lot of Cornell grads, RIT grads, UR grads looking to start up a business. We’d like to encourage them to start up their business in this region. If it happens to be in agriculture, we can help them do that.”

The effort goes far beyond just Cornell and Wegmans. Other stakeholders include:

This week’s meeting is likely to set goals, but some participants will bring some suggested goals with them.

Nyrop hopes the group will define what success for the center will look like in five years. He said his benchmarks include “significant growth in the food and agricultural industry in Central New York”—he suggests 5 percent—and “elevating the reputation of this region in food and agriculture as a center for on quality and innovative technologies.”

Nozzolio has three goals to suggest: develop more New York based food production companies by expanding existing companies or recruiting new companies to the state, thereby increasing jobs; foster at least 100 startups through the Center of Excellence; and enhance navigation of the process. In other words, make it easier for other companies to do what Ithaca Hummus did.

If any of this seems ambitious, proponents of the Center of Excellence would point to the undeveloped economic potential of the tortoise in the hare-and-tortoise story. The proposal Nyrop and Strassburg delivered to the state legislature to gain funds to start the center suggested $7 billion could be added to the state’s economy in the next decade.

And who was the hare in that story?  Flashier high tech has earned millions of dollars of investment with its promise of a big payoff in jobs, even though the potential numbers of jobs in those fields represent one-tenth of what agriculture and food processing could provide, Nozzolio said.

Most of the current and previous centers of excellence have focused on high-tech industries, such as nanotechnology, bioinformatics and data science.

“There are a dozen in the state. Some have been very successful, some have failed and some have been mediocre,” Nozzolio said. “None of them have had the breadth and scope of businesses that this center is designed to encourage.”

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