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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