As agriculture and food industries move further into the 21st century, there are plenty of tough decisions and uncertainty ahead. But these industries, and Cornell AgriTech, have been here together before. In its 140 years, the station has helped producers survive world wars, foodborne illness outbreaks, and pest and disease control crises. Today, Cornell AgriTech remains hard-wired for hope, with a reenergized focus on harnessing diversity, technology and collaboration to build a more resilient food and agriculture ecosystem for the future of New Yorkers and their communities.
Pressing practical problems
When NYSAES opened its doors in Geneva, New York, in 1882, it was New York’s first independent, state-funded agricultural experiment station and one of the first of its kind in the United States. At the time, the station had only 130 acres of land, seven scientists, one building, a barn and some horses.
Today, Cornell AgriTech encompasses a 900-acre research farm and 500,000 square feet of laboratory space, and has 32 faculty members, 30 graduate students, 22 postdoctoral associates and over 300 employees. Mike Colizzi, co-owner of Kashong Glen Vineyards in Penn Yan, New York, and senior grower relations representative for E. & J. Gallo Winery in Canandaigua, New York, says most people don’t know the sheer size and scope of Cornell AgriTech, or how many fruits and vegetables we buy today trace their beginnings back to the station.
Cornell AgriTech has developed and released more than 280 varieties of fruits and vegetables for the fresh market and processing industries. Its apple breeding program, the oldest in the U.S., supports New York’s apple industry valued at over $400 million and has released 69 varieties, including well-known favorites Empire, Cortland and Jonagold, as well as the newer SnapDragon and RubyFrost. Most modern apple orchards use trees grafted onto improved rootstocks developed in Geneva, as well as the more efficient and profitable Tall Spindle growing system designed by Cornell AgriTech researchers.
The Geneva campus also has released 59 juice, table and wine grape varieties. Cayuga white, the program’s first wine grape bred for New York, was released in 1972. In 1996, station breeders released traminette, a gewürztraminer hybrid. Colizzi says both varieties have become backbones of the New York grape and wine industry, which is valued today at $6.65 billion; traminette is also the state wine grape of Indiana. Discoveries by Cornell AgriTech scientists have also expanded markets and business opportunities – from using ultraviolet light for pasteurizing fresh juices, to helping create a $100 million Eastern broccoli industry, to breeding cabbage that allowed New York’s sauerkraut processors to reduce environmental waste while maximizing profits.
Local sustainability solutions, global resources
For Colizzi, these accomplishments demonstrate Cornell AgriTech’s responsiveness to grower and food processor needs and why the station is such a valuable asset.
“Through on-farm research trials, there’s open connection and communication between the farmer and the researcher,” he says. “It’s not unheard of for growers to call a researcher about a problem. They have a local focus, but they’re able to pull from such a global, diverse bank of knowledge to tackle projects across commodities, focus areas and even universities. You just can’t replace that.”
You also can’t easily replace effective and safe disease and pest management or beneficial soil microorganisms and pollinators – all of which are threatened by the effects of climate change. Yet Colizzi and industry colleagues are bullish on how Cornell AgriTech’s diverse resources will drive adaptation and resilience. In New York, where pest and disease pressure are already higher compared with states like California and Washington, disease management and environmental impact are big concerns for growers.
“We’re losing some traditional tools,” says Sam Filler, executive director of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. “We don’t know what comes next, which is why it’s essential to have innovative integrated pest management (IPM) research, and for growers to be able to access it on demand so they can respond quickly to new threats.”
Filler says Cornell AgriTech’s expertise in IPM practices is crucial to those efforts. Over decades of groundbreaking work across several departments, Geneva researchers developed tools that enabled New York farmers to reduce their pesticide use by 30% to 80%. Today, they’re expanding a statewide online decision support system to provide on-demand weather and insect monitoring combined with seasonal crop life cycle data to create models of pest pressure over time. Entomologists also are working to find effective, more targeted alternatives to common pesticides proven to negatively impact beneficial pollinators.
Cornell AgriTech’s digital agriculture program is a prime example of how the Geneva campus is developing new tools to help growers manage challenges. In 2019, assistant professor Yu Jiang was hired as the station’s first engineering faculty member to work on multidisciplinary projects exploring ways to help farmers improve decision-making and optimize resources using advanced technologies like remote sensors, unmanned aircraft systems, artificial intelligence and robotics.
Rick Pedersen ’81, who ran a 600-acre organic vegetable and grain farm in Seneca Castle, New York, says having a broad range of Cornell AgriTech specialists in one place was a huge selling point. Another was Cornell AgriTech’s support for evolving industries and economic development. Anna Katharine Mansfield, associate professor of enology and Cornell AgriTech’s associate director, says the station is uniquely positioned to help develop new industries, high-tech tools and profitable crops for New York farmers and food producers.
“We sit at the intersection of cutting-edge science, boots-on-the-ground field research and industry collaboration,” she says. “This creates an excellent feedback loop that allows industry needs to inform research objectives, discoveries to be translated into practice, impacts measured to determine efficacy – feeding back into to our research programs for expansion or modification.”
Some of that expansion is happening in Cornell AgriTech’s breeding programs. In 2016, AgriTech launched its industrial hemp breeding program as part of a broad initiative within Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Three years later, the USDA-ARS located the nation’s only industrial hemp germplasm repository at Cornell AgriTech, and by 2021 New York led the U.S. in industrial hemp production. Also in 2021, AgriTech launched a hops breeding program to develop varieties best suited for New York. New York-grown hops are a critical ingredient for the state’s $3.4 billion craft beer industry, which has grown rapidly since 2013, when New York passed its farm brewing law. Now, for brewers to qualify for the farm brewery license, 60% of their hops and all other ingredients must be grown in New York. Pedersen, who started growing hops on his farm and selling to local breweries well before the 2013 farm brewing law, is hopeful the new breeding program will ease the industry’s growing pains.
“Hops are the most complex crop I’ve ever grown,” he says. “Now we’ll have better varieties and something special from New York that brewers will really want.”
By supporting food safety, innovation and investment, Cornell AgriTech also is giving New York’s food entrepreneurs and consumers more of what they want. New York has the second-largest food processing industry in the U.S., a niche that Bob Norris ’88, owner of TreeCrisp Farms in Wolcott, New York, says growers need to exploit. Norris, who grows 500 acres of apples and operates a controlled atmosphere storage facility, is looking to Cornell AgriTech’s food science researchers and Cornell Food Venture Center to push innovation in value-added apple products.
“New York is one of the few places in the world that grows apples specifically for making the best processed products,” he says. “We need the next new product to expand that market.”
Since opening in 1998 on the Geneva campus, the Food Venture Center has helped over 13,000 entrepreneurs put more than 20,000 new products on store shelves. Startup food ventures also use its revitalized pilot processing plant to conduct essential proof-of-concept and food safety work; access affordable chemical analyses; and use its commercial high-pressure processing facility to package fresh-made, minimally processed products. And, with the addition in 2018 of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, the Cornell AgriTech campus has become a one-stop shop for connecting food and agriculture entrepreneurs to investors, co-packing partnerships, economic development funds, and coworking lab and manufacturing space.
A diverse, equitable and inclusive frontier
According to Mansfield, the next generation of farmers, researchers and entrepreneurs will look different than they do now. Agriculture in the U.S., and in New York state, has been primarily white and male, but that’s changing, with a growing number of farms owned by women, and Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
To better understand the station’s role in shaping the next generation of agricultural science and farming, Cornell AgriTech established the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council with Mansfield leading the initiative. The work is just beginning, but an early survey revealed that there’s more diversity of all kinds within Cornell AgriTech’s staff and students than within its faculty and leadership. These data are already informing the council’s goals, which include creating inclusion and belonging on campus and honoring diverse views, experience and knowledge.
This is especially important because, as Colizzi says, there’s so much more involved in agriculture today – whether you’re a crop adviser, a mechanical engineer designing the next remote tool or a computational biologist mining massive data sets.
“To me, the most exciting part of the industry is its diversity,” says Colizzi. “You can tie every discipline into agriculture somehow. One of the biggest things Cornell AgriTech has to offer is exposing the next generation to such a diverse world of study and opportunities, across Cornell University and the world.”
Mansfield says the biggest lesson learned so far with DEI work is that it’s a gradual and iterative process, just like scientific discovery. It’s also a process fueled by hope, which Colizzi says is a strange but persistent trait in farmers – the belief that, even after a complete crop loss, the sun will rise again tomorrow with another chance to do better.
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