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.”