Grapes and wine have significant impact in New York, study reports

For every $1 million the state provides to boost the grape and wine industry in New York, it gets $1.3 billion back in taxes, according to an economic impact report that just came out.

Sam Filler
Sam Filler

The report compiled on behalf of the New York State Wine & Grape Foundation concludes that the industry had a $6.65 billion impact on New York’s economy in 2019, including jobs and wages, expenditures to support the industry, and sales of grape and wine products.

“I’m encouraged that the industry continues to grow and it’s an important contributor to the state’s economy, especially in the rural parts of the state,” said Sam Filler, executive director of the foundation.

It’s difficult to make side-by-side comparisons with this 2019 report and others, as a previous report the foundation commissioned in 2012 used entirely different methodology, Filler said. That report indicated an impact of $4.8 billion from the New York wine and grape industry, but it didn’t include the foundation itself or the research dollars and wages surrounding grape and wine research at Cornell AgriTech, Filler noted.

A 2017 national report by Wine America showed the wine industry had a $13.8 billion impact on New York, but again used a different methodology. That report didn’t include juice grapes, and did include out-of-state wines sold in New York.

Filler said the national report’s New York findings included, for instance, sales offices in New York established by large California wine brands. The foundation’s report was aimed solely at determining the impact of the home-grown industry, especially direct impact.

“Those are actual jobs and actual tax revenue and salaries paid that are directly attributed to the presence of the New York state wine industry,” Filler said. Such data helps when seeking additional support from state economic development sources, he said.

Both the latest New York report and the 2017 national report were conducted by John Dunham and Associates, a Brooklyn economic research firm.

John Dunham, managing partner of the firm, said the report shows “The New York wine industry is really quite healthy—it’s growing in terms of revenues. It’s not growing jobs as fast, but that’s expected in most manufacturing” sectors. The number of jobs were flatter than they might have been, Dunham said, because Constellation Brands, headquartered in Victor, sold some of its wine brands to Gallo, moving some of the associated jobs to California.

The modeling used to account for jobs in the foundation’s report is more realistic, Dunham suggested, because it’s tailored to the state rather than using a mathematical formula that cuts a national model down to the state level.

Key findings of the foundation’s 2019 New York report:

  • The industry is directly responsible for the full-time equivalent of 71,950 jobs. Many of the industry’s jobs are seasonal.
  • Those jobs paid $2.79 billion in wages.
  • Some 1.43 million people visited wineries and vineyards in the state for a total of 4.71 million.
  • Wine-related tourism resulted in $1.33 billion in other kinds of spending, such as lodging, food and transportation.
  • Total taxes, including state, local and federal, from the industry were $2.4 billion.
  • The state had 471 wineries in 2019, an increase of about 30 since the 2017 report and more than 170 since the 2012 report.
  • New York has about 35,000 acres in grape production with just over two-thirds of them devoted to Concord grapes, which are primarily used for juice instead of wine, and a little less than one-third planted with grapes destined to make wine. A small percent of acreage was devoted to fresh grapes.

Though grape juice production is larger than wine production in terms of volume and acreage, the report indicated that wine production is much more lucrative, starting with the value of the grapes. Wine grapes tend to sell for up to eight times the price of juice grapes, depending on varietal.  Additionally, wine production promotes tourism, produces products of higher dollar value than grape juice and involves retail interactions at the wineries themselves.

“Selling wine continues to be an important way for wineries to contribute to their businesses and interact with consumers,” Filler said.

Still, the report noted, grape juice production is not to be overlooked.

“All told the grape juice industry in New York is responsible for 688 jobs, paying almost $39.28 million in wages. Over $154.22 million in economic activity in New York is due to the grape juice industry,” the report said.

A study on economic impact of the grape an wine industry in 2019 includes research and development work such as the breeding done for Cornell's Bruce Reisch.
A study on economic impact of the grape an wine industry in 2019 includes research and development work such as the breeding done for Cornell’s Bruce Reisch.

For the first time, data was collected on a county-by-county and legislative districts, Filler said, providing some interesting takeaways. Those more detailed reports showed Yates County, the third-least populous county in the state out of 65 counties or boroughs, is the center of New York’s wine country, he said.

“Yates is the heart of the industry in terms of vineyards planted,” he said, with about 5,000 acres under cultivation. Not surprisingly, Yates also had the most vineyard jobs to tend those vineyards.

The county’s unique geography also makes it part of three different Finger Lakes’ wine areas – Canandaigua, Keuka and Seneca – and places it at the center of the entire Finger Lakes Region, the largest wine region in the state.

Filler also said he was not satisfied with available data on vineyards, as federal agriculture censuses only look at two categories of grapes: Concord and all other types. As a result, the federal census provides little information on whether types of wine grapes planted are growing or changing, for instance.

“We need more accurate vineyard data in terms of what’s planted in the state,” Filler said. “That will help us better tell the story of what’s happening in the NYS wine industry.”

The foundation conducted a supplemental survey, but it wasn’t ready in time to be included in this economic analysis, he said. And any survey relies on voluntary efforts of the growers to complete. The industry may have to foot the bill to create a more complete survey to which growers will be willing to devote their time, he said.

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Cornell research may make hemp easier to raise and sell legally

Hemp growers in New York face the uncertainty of growing a crop that becomes illegal to sell because it unintentionally contains a higher amount of the psychoactive chemical THC than is allowable by state regulations.

Now a Cornell University study has revealed the cause behind some hemp plants’ tendency to “go hot” that could make it easier to cultivate hemp and stay within legal limits.

The culprit seems to be genetics, according to work done by Cornell researchers, and not a stress reaction to environmental conditions.

People thought “there was something about how the farmer grew the plant, something about the soil, the weather got too hot, his field was droughted, something went wrong with the growing conditions,” said Larry Smart, professor in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science. “But our evidence from this paper is that fields go hot because of genetics, not because of environmental conditions.”

Cornell horticulturist Larry Smart examines hemp plants at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. (Photo by Justin James Muir for Cornell University)
Cornell horticulturist Larry Smart examines hemp plants at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. (Photo by Justin James Muir for Cornell University)

Smart was the senior researcher for the study published last month in the Global Change Biology-Bioenergy.

Jacob Toth, a doctoral student in Smart’s lab, and lead author of the paper, developed a test that found three genetic categories for hemp plants: one has two CBD-producing genes, another has one of those genes and one producing THC, and the third has two genes making THC. The ideal selection has only CBD, or cannabidiol, genes.

Toth said, “To keep THC levels low, ensuring a lack of THC-producing genes will be important for the development of future compliant cultivars. Molecular testing is also much quicker and less expensive than current methods, and it can be done on seedlings instead of mature plants.”

The research team carried out field trials in both Ithaca and Geneva. The researchers noted that when they obtained supposedly low-THC hemp seeds, their tests revealed two-thirds actually produced THC levels above the limits.

Both types of compounds are produced only in the female hemp plants, but farmers might unwittingly use male plants with the THC genes for pollination that carry THC trait to their offspring, thereby promoting its production.

The team also came up with genetic markers to identify the sex of plants earlier, as they are identical until they flower. The technology is not affordable for an entire field of plants yet, Smart said, but promises to be useful.

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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 experts discuss what the consumer wants

Consumers want their food choices to be fresh, local, “clean,” healthy, decadent, plant-based, full of taste, packaged in a recycled container, and made by a company that has a social conscience and doesn’t harm the environment.

Those were some of the conclusions of a panel on meeting consumer demands with food innovation at the Grow-NY conference this week at the Floreano Riverside Convention Center.

Representatives of Ag Voice from Georgia, standing, make a pitch for their company to seated judges at the Grow-NY competition.
Representatives of Ag Voice from Georgia, standing, make a pitch for their company to seated judges at the Grow-NY competition.

Nearly 1,000 people, from Georgia to Alberta, Canada, were attending the conference to learn or boast about food and agriculture opportunities in this part of New York and to witness a $3 million competition for food and agriculture startups.

Seventeen startup companies, including two from Ontario County, were vying for prizes ranging from $250,000 to $1 million in the competition due to conclude Thursday. Grow-NY is an economic development initiative trying to lure businesses to or expand businesses in the Finger Lakes region, part of the Southern Tier, and Central New York. The Grow-NY area covers 22 counties, from Broome County in the southeast to Orleans County in the northwest.

Cornell University’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement is managing the competition and event, which is funded by Empire State Development.

The local competitors were The Perfect Granola, of Victor, and RealEats America, of Geneva. Both companies source ingredients locally, eschew additives and exercise their social consciousness by donating their products, whether they’re granola bars or ready-to-reheat meals.

Other competitors included:

  • Dropcopter, a Syracuse company that uses drones to pollinate tree crops;
  • Combplex, an Ithaca company that using small lasers to kill pests that are killing honey bees;
  • AgVoice, a Norcross, Ga., company that uses voice-activated mobile devices to record and compile agricultural data; and
  • Livestock Water Recycling, from Alberta, a company that recycles the waste stream of cows into fertilizer and reusable water.

The competition was due to conclude with the announcement of the winners Thursday evening.

Each company had 20 minutes to make its presentation, with 10 minutes for the pitch and another 10 minutes to field questions from a panel of judges.

Evident in many of the pitches and the symposium discussions were the resources that exist locally for food and agriculture entrepreneurs. Many noted the role that Cornell University, and particularly its research and development arm in Geneva for agriculture and food production, Cornell AgriTech, had played in helping their companies hone their ideas. Similarly, several companies noted that they’re already demonstrating their technologies or products by working with Wegmans Food Markets Inc., such as at its organic farm in Canandaigua.

More established food and agriculture companies also offered their takes on doing business, including Rochester’s LiDestri Food and Drink, Rich Products in Buffalo and Chobani, in Chenango County. In the panel on consumer preferences, they both said they’re always watching for changes in consumer preferences, including environmental concerns.

Niel Sandfort, vice president of new product development at Chobani, said when a company’s carbon footprint is calculated, the nutrients they’re transporting should be part of the equation. He noted that yogurt is one of the most nutrient dense foods made, and trucks carrying that food shouldn’t really be compared to, say, trucks carrying loads of soda pop, which is essentially water and sugar.

Nevertheless, he said, “We’re constantly ‘light-weighting.’ Last year we took out 1 million pounds of resin. How do we (keep making) a better container?”

As for additives, Sandfort said the company is extremely careful about what it introduces to yogurt, joking that “Yogurt is basically a petri dish waiting to be contaminated.”

Jamie McKeon, senior vice president of demand creation at Rich Products, said consumers say they want clean, additive-free food but they’re also unwilling to compromise on taste. Her company, which makes what she described as a celebratory range of products — cakes, cookies, icings, pizzas — actually sees sales drop when it attempts to market products featuring healthy ingredients.

“Indulgence is important to consumers today. How can we make it healthier and ‘cleaner?’” she said.  McKeon said consumer preferences seem to indicate people want to eat healthier during their daily routines, but focus more on taste and experience for non-routine meals or celebrations.

“Consumers are in control and they want to have it all,” she said.

LiDestri is partnering with a controlled environment producer of greens because of consumer preference, said Phil Viruso, chief operating office at LiDestri. “Consumers want fresh, healthy options and they want smaller portions,” so the company is trying to accommodate those preferences.

RBJ’s coverage of the winners of the competition will run online.

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Schumer announces seed money for hemp germplasm repository in Geneva

Sen. Charles E. Schumer announced today that $500,000 in federal funding will go to Geneva to establish a seed repository for the hemp industry.

The money will go specifically to the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture, which has an outpost on the Cornell AgriTech campus. The ARS would establish the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository.

Germplasm includes seeds, cuttings and other genetic material of plants.

“Not only will this facility act as the United States’ only industrial hemp seed bank, but it will also allow the world-class agricultural scientists at Cornell to help boost industrial hemp entrepreneurship,” Schumer said.

Kathryn J. Boor, dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences said, “The hemp seed bank and the research that it will allow by our Cornell and USDA-ARS scientists will be vital resources for New York state farmers.”

Until the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp had been considered a controlled substance because it is a member of the cannabis plant family and contains extremely low levels of the active ingredient in marijuana.

Schumer said a germplasm repository for hemp used to exist but its collection was destroyed when hemp became a controlled substance. He called the $500,000 allocation a “down payment” necessary to rebuild hemp cultivation and provide the means to make it a viable cash crop in New York. Hemp has applications for use in food, oil, and cosmetic products.

Cornell and USDA scientists maintain and have access to other germplasm repositories at Cornell AgriTech, including some for grape, apple, cherry, tomato and members of the brassica family (cabbage, cauliflower, kale and broccoli among others.)

In February, a panel discussion convened by American Cannabis Co. concluded that lack of germplasm repositories is holding back the industry.

Mitch Day, a science consultant working with ACC, said that similar to other crops, development of hemp needs plant breeding. “Breeding is the most effective way to increase yields, and germplasm is the raw material for that breeding.”

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New laboratory set for grape genetics research in Geneva

The federal Agricultural Research Services’ Grape Genetics Research Unit will be getting an updated laboratory, after receiving nearly $69 million in federal funding announced by Sen. Charles Schumer Tuesday.

The unit is located at Geneva’s Cornell AgriTech, a Cornell University agricultural research unit that also houses some federal and state initiatives.

“The grape industry plays a fundamental role in the Upstate economy, and I’ll always fight for the investment needed to keep it from going sour,” Schumer said. The industry supports $4.8 billion of economic activity, including thousands of jobs in the Finger Lakes and elsewhere in Upstate New York, he noted.

Researchers at the lab first conducted a feasibility study for new facilities in 2003, and only last year moved to a larger location on the Cornell AgriTech campus, Schumer said. However, “the Unit still needs a dedicated facility with sufficient space to incorporate new sensor technology and the enhanced computing capacity necessary to stay at the leading edge of crop research to support grape growers Upstate and nationwide,” the Senator said.pexels-photo-357742

Cornell President Martha E. Pollack said, “It has been Cornell’s privilege to lease space to the GGRU for many years, and we are pleased that these world-class scientists will now have a world-class facility of their own. Co-location of the federal lab cements the decades-long research partnership between Cornell and USDA that has helped fuel the explosive growth of the New York wine and grape industries.”

Schumer noted there are 327 growers in the Rochester-Finger Lakes area alone, (second only to the Western New York region, with 578.) The state also has more than 400 wineries, with some 120 of those in the Finger Lakes region.

“This new federal funding will ensure that New York remains on the cutting edge for grape research and provide grape growers with viticulture practices appropriate for our climate,” said Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.

The $68.9 million in funding comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service’s building and facilities budget.

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From Costa Rica to Cornell, Padilla-Zakour finds her calling in food processing

When a small company in New York has a bright idea for a new food product, it typically turns to Olga Padilla-Zakour. When a large company, like Wegmans, is thinking of adding a new product line or a new vendor, it turns to Padilla-Zakour too.

Olga Padilla-Zakour of Geneva is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Food Services at the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Geneva.
Olga Padilla-Zakour (Photo by Kate Melton)

And when the state Department of Agriculture and Markets needs to make a decision about a new food-processing technology, it also turns to the director of the New York State Food Venture Center, a part of Cornell AgriTech in Geneva.

Padilla-Zakour, a native of Costa Rica, has worked at the food venture center since 1997, but her history with the center goes back at least a decade further. It’s where she did her graduate work, and where she met her husband, author and cartoonist John Zakour, who used to be a database programmer for what was once known as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Food Venture Center is a processing authority, meaning it can certify that a food process is safe for commercial production. Gaining certification of a food process is a necessary step before a food producer can gain a license for commercial production of a new food product. The center Padilla-Zakour supervises is the main place food processors in New York State turn for this certification.

In 2018, 1,800 products received reviews of their food processes under Padilla-Zakour’s eyes.

She also oversaw a $13 million update, rebuilding the center’s food processing pilot plant and adding new equipment. And 2018 was the last full year that Padilla-Zakour will have juggled the duties of chair of the Cornell University Department of Food Science, a job that requires her to commute to the university’s main campus in Ithaca up to four days a week.

“I’m looking forward to really spending time here to (work toward) the goal of making this the food technology hub for the state of New York,” Padilla-Zakour said in Geneva during a recent lull in activity between semesters.

With the pilot plant’s renovation almost complete, Padilla-Zakour has set her next goal: a larger role for the center in support of innovation for New York’s food industry.

“I’m looking forward to really spending time here to (work toward) the goal of making this the food technology hub for the state of New York,” she said. “We’re looking for partnerships to co-locate companies within the AgTech Park.”

The neighboring Tech Farm, a food and agricultural company incubator, needs additional space for processing, she noted. “They might be able to use some of our space.”

Padilla-Zakour said the center’s second floor was not part of the recent renovation and is available for development. Consolidation of departments between Ithaca and Geneva, and cuts in state funding over the years have reduced the number of people working in the building, she said. The space could be used by a food technology company wanting to do research and development there, or even an equipment manufacturer that supplies the food industry.

From someone other than Padilla-Zakour, such plans might sound like pie in the sky. But she commands such respect among colleagues and industry, those familiar with her know her words are much more than idle daydreaming.

“It’s kind of like if Olga says something, that is the gold standard,” said Kathleen O’Connell-Cahill, director of food science and regulatory affairs for Wegmans. O’Connell-Cahill, who has worked at Wegmans for years, has known Padilla-Zakour since the latter was in graduate school at Cornell.

Not only is Padilla-Zakour’s expertise relied upon for analyzing food processing criteria, but she’s also consulted for advice at the idea stage of a product’s development.

“There are many times where we will be thinking about a product or thinking about a process we might want to introduce into the stores. We … seek counsel from Olga and just kind of talk through what would be our challenges or pitfalls,” O’Connell-Cahill said. Padilla-Zakour and the food venture center were quite helpful in developing Wegmans’ new vegetable purees, she said, along with a seasonal product about to hit the stores again later this winter — maple water, which is basically filtered tree sap.  “She really is a huge resource to agriculture, especially in New York, but even outside New York,” O’Connell-Cahill added.

While the center’s mission is to boost New York agriculture, Padilla-Zakour said, it also accepts clients from other states, too.

John Luker, assistant director for food safety inspection at the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, said Padilla-Zakour has been a tremendous help to him both in his current job and when he worked in the food industry as a plant manager and in quality control.

“Everybody knows how to make food. Not everyone is aware of how to make food safely,” he said.

With the rapid introduction of new kinds of products to the market, state and federal regulations don’t always keep up, Luker said. That’s when Padilla-Zakour’s help is especially useful, he said, in determining new standards for food safety.

“For an example, if you vacuum-pack food products at retail, you can only have a 14-day shelf life,” under state regulations, Luker said. The food may actually be safe to eat well past that expiration date, though, he said. The manufacturer can get a “processing variance” to the 14-day limit by submitting its process to the Geneva food venture center and gaining its OK.

Luker said Padilla-Zakour and her staff review the process and often suggest tweaks or other changes that ensure its success.

“She’s been able to assist many, many producers, small and large … to bring their product to market,” Luker said.

Padilla-Zakour and the center also recently helped the state train its inspectors. Luker said that normally the state could only send a few inspectors for federal food safety inspection training, because there were limited openings and the training was usually far away. After the Cornell pilot plant was remodeled, Padilla-Zakour’s and her staff  mounted a federally approved training event there that allowed more than 25 state inspectors to receive the training at one time.

“She was a direct part of the team that worked diligently putting it all together,” Luker said. “Her accessibility, her staff’s, the willingness to take on pretty much anything … always willing to look at a new product.  That’s probably the biggest thing,” Luker said.

Cornell’s Food Venture Center, which has an outpost in Brooklyn, too, is the only processing authority in the state that can handle high pressure processing, Luker said, referring to a cold processing method using vacuum sealing that is preferred in some instances because it causes less alteration of the food’s characteristics than other methods.

Padilla-Zakour grew up in Costa Rica, the sixth of eight children from a mother who served in Costa Rica’s national congress. Good in science and math, she described herself as a nerd as a teenager but an athletic one. She said she played on Costa Rica’s national softball team for a time and also played basketball, volleyball and other sports.

When she was still in high school, the young Olga Padilla set her sights on chemical engineering. A school counselor suggested she think about nutrition, but she rejected the idea because it would have meant moving to Guatemala for college. During her first semester as a chemical engineering major, true to her scientific method, she requested the syllabi of all the academic programs taught at her college. She discovered food technology contained many of the same courses as chemical engineering, but added microbiology of foods and others.

“I thought, maybe this is better,” she said, and switched after the first semester. Food technology combined her interest in native Costa Rican fruits with her talents in science and math.

After gaining a five-year degree called a licensure, Padilla took a job as a supervisor at a food processing plant in a tiny town in Costa Rica in 1983. She commuted from her family’s home each week and stayed with a family in the village, traveling to and from the plant each day by motorbike.

“I learned a lot, let’s put it that way,” Padilla-Zakour said in answering a question about being a young woman in charge at a time and place when women often didn’t take such roles. “People were very grateful to have a job,” she said. But the plant’s mechanic quit when she became the plant manager a year later. “He was not going to report to a young woman,” she said.

Padilla-Zakour soon started looking for opportunities to gain additional expertise; graduate school seemed like the best route. An acquaintance with knowledge of Cornell said that was the place she needed to go if she wanted to gain practical experience in food processing as well as a more academic background. So she applied for and gained a scholarship from the United States Agency for International Development and listed Cornell as her first choice.

Padilla-Zakour arrived in Ithaca in 1986.  Her master’s degree work focused not on one of the tropical crops she was familiar with from Costa Rica, but on apples, because Padilla-Zakour could have access to them in the fields and help harvest and guide them through the processing equipment at Cornell.

While she was working on her master’s degree, a professor in the extension part of Cornell started the food venture center in 1988, and the university staff encourage her to continue on for a doctorate. USAID was not excited about that prospect, she suggested, because of the extra expense required to extend her visa, but Cornell came up with the necessary funding for Padilla-Zakour to continue.

Trying to decide whether to accept, she consulted her mother in Costa Rica. “She said, ‘Nothing is going to change here in three years. You should think about it,’ ” Padilla-Zakour recalled.

She finished her Ph.D. in May 1991 as a married woman and the young couple moved to Costa Rica by August of that year. She taught at a university while her husband employed a fax machine to transmit writing assignments, which included science fiction novels, back to the United States.

After three years, and the birth of their son, John Sebastian, the couple moved back to the Geneva area. When the young  mother was ready to start looking for full-time work again, she landed a job with Canandaigua Wine Co. (now Constellation Brands) at its Mission Bell Winery in California. Padilla-Zakour worked as a research chemist focusing on processing wine and juice concentrates in the best ways to extract their nutraceuticals.

“I was comfortable in the job in the second year,” Padilla-Zakour said, adding that the heat of the Central Valley of California suited her tropical roots. But then the job running the food venture center in Geneva opened when one of her mentors retired. “We were far from both families and we had a little child,” she said.

Padilla-Zakour was concerned because the job at that time wasn’t a tenure-track position. But looking back 21 years later, she said, “I think it’s the best decision I made.”

In the years since, her job has morphed to include teaching, research, and extension services working directly with industry. Eight years ago, the food science and food science technology departments at Ithaca and Geneva, respectively, merged. She became chair a few years later.

In her time at the center, fees that it charges companies to certify their processes have made the center self-sustaining, she said.

“Because we have so much experience, we can handle thousands of schedule processes” in a year.

Last week, some of the new equipment for the pilot plant was still being set up.  When it’s finished, Padilla-Zakour said, “we’ll be in a place where you can test different technologies at the same time.”

The updated facilities help attract new grants, Padilla-Zakour said, as well as graduate students to carry out research.

“There are so many bright people that want to get into this area,” she said.

“I really enjoy working with the students but also the entrepreneurs, because you’re helping them directly.”  When she leaves the chair position in June, she’ll be able to dedicate more time to both.

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Olga Padilla-Zakour

Title: Director of the Cornell Food Venture Center at Cornell AgriTech, Geneva, and chair of Food Science, Cornell University

Age: 58

Residence: Geneva

Education: Bachelor’s degree in food science, University of Costa Rica, 1983; master’s degree in food science and technology, Cornell University, 1988; doctorate in food science and technology, Cornell, 1991.

Family: Husband, John M. Zakour; son, John S. Zakour

Hobbies: Until a herniated disc sidelined her, Padilla-Zakour enjoyed competitive softball, basketball, volleyball, speed roller skating and pickleball. She continues to participate in bicycling and table tennis.

Quote: “I’m looking forward to really spending time here to (work toward) the goal of making this the food technology hub for the state of New York.”


New grape offers taste of Concord without the seeds

The most popular grapes in New York are Concord grapes, having both a wonderful aroma and a great taste that make them the preferred grape for juice, jam, sweet wine and the much-hyped grape pie.

Cornell's Bruce Reisch examines a cluster of Everest Seedless grapes, a new variety bred at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. Photo supplied by Cornell University
Cornell’s Bruce Reisch examines a cluster of Everest Seedless grapes, a new variety bred at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. (Photo supplied by Cornell University)

When it comes to eating them fresh, though, that’s another story. Do you swallow or spit out the seeds? The pesky seeds make eating Concord grapes fresh a nonstarter for many people.

But a new variety of grape produced at Cornell AgriTech (formerly the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station) may give New York growers something new to chew on, and we’re not talking about seeds.

Cornell’s Bruce Reisch has come up with the latest in a long line of grape varieties, the Everest Seedless.  He was also the guy behind the development of Traminette, a growing darling of the wine industry, released in 1996, and the 2013 releases of newbies Arandell, a red grape, and Aromella, a white grape.

The Everest Seedless could be thought of as a seedless Concord. It has the same blue-black color and shape, the taste is similar if not quite so strong, and owing to its double batch of chromosomes – a natural variation – it’s about twice the size.

“Everest is one of the largest mountains in the world, and this is one very large grape,” Reisch said. “With its formidable ancestry and big flavor, we feel this variety can live up to its name.” Concord played a large role in Everest’s genetics.

Reisch said it took about 20 years of experimentation to develop the Everest, with many of the vines grown in the vicinity of Cornell AgriTech in Geneva.

“It takes only three or four years to get a new seedling to fruit,” Reisch said. “Then what takes so long is testing this.” Other growing sites are used to see how the grape does under different soil conditions.

All this testing is particularly important to growers who are considering trying the new variety, Reisch said. “A grower might be ready to make a 30-year investment. They want to know you have more than one or more years of data,” he said.

Dennis Rak, owner of Double A Vineyards in Fredonia, Chautauqua County, helped in the development of Everest Seedless, as he has for other Cornell varieties over the last couple of decades.

He said some of the Everest grapes were grafted onto root stock of other grape varieties—a step not normally taken with vitis labrusca grapes, like Everest, but one that’s normal with vitis vinifera grapes, such as table grapes and wine varietals from Europe. The result was the grapes were even bigger, he said, perhaps owing to the water absorption properties of the grafted rootstock.

Double A has the exclusive license for the new grape variety for the next 10 years. Currently, the only place to buy the Everest vines is through Double A.

Reisch predicts Everest Seedless will be a big hit with backyard gardeners, as well as farmers who operate produce stands and are seeking table grapes to add to their mix.  Rak agreed, saying “This one would be a really good one for them to have.”

Rak, who confesses to being a Concord seed swallower, said Everest Seedless will also be popular with “anyone who likes Concord grapes but doesn’t like the seeds. This would be a great grape for them.”

While the aim of developing Everest was to create a seedless grape for table consumption, Reisch said it might also be a labor saver for the people who make grape pies.  Its larger size and lack of seeds could reduce the time it takes to prepare a pie’s filling.

Everest Seedless grapes appear to be resistant to the cold, like most native New York grapes, and to mildew and insects.

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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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