Five Questions for Cathy Young
Cathy Young joined the NYS Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (CoE) as executive director in March of 2019. She is responsible for leading the newly-established entity to improve people’s lives by working to grow the food, beverage and agriculture economy across the state. The CoE is a hub that advances economic development projects by connecting businesses and entrepreneurs to the resources they need to be successful. Cathy served in the New York state legislature for 20 years, and was the first woman in history to chair the influential Senate Finance Committee, where she oversaw the budgeting process on behalf of the Senate, and developed programs and policy to grow the economy. She also chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, working to strengthen the state’s $45 billion agriculture industry. Cathy grew up on a third-generation dairy and grains farm in Livingston County.
What inspired you to work with the Center of Excellence?
When I was in fourth grade, our class had an assignment to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Of course, as the self-appointed chief assistant to my Dad on our farm, I wanted to be a farmer, and it is fulfilling to have a job that focuses on strengthening agriculture. My father is a 1953 graduate of Cornell, and a deep admiration for the institution has been instilled in me over the years, both from my family and from my work with Cornell as a Senator. My personal and professional experiences related to farming, food, beverage and advancing economic growth were great inspirations to work with the CoE.
What are the major challenges being addressed at the Center?
New York already is a global leader in food, beverage, and agriculture, and building on our existing assets positions our state to become the top magnet in the U.S. for innovation, investments and economic growth. The CoE has a mission to push entrepreneurs and start-ups towards success; pull existing food, beverage, and agriculture-related companies to locate in New York; and grow already existing businesses in New York that are the backbone of the state’s economy.
How does your work benefit the grape and wine industries?
Wine and grapes provide $13.8 billion in economic benefits to New York State every year, according to information compiled by the NYS Wine and Grape Foundation. From juice companies to wineries to innovative packaging initiatives, the CoE has been involved with several business entities related to grapes and wines, and we are looking to grow our impact by working with industry partners. The planned $69 million USDA grape genetics research lab that will be built at Cornell AgriTech will create collaborations to connect cutting edge research into the marketplace, and will be a major initiative to attract companies to locate in New York. The CoE will be working to grow economic opportunities related to this exciting initiative and other advancements in the grape and wine industries.
You have a different professional background and perspective than many people in this field – has anything about the grape and wine industries surprised you?
It has been wonderful to work closely with the grape and wine industries over the years. In the state Senate, I represented the Lake Erie grape growing region, which has over 30,000 acres of vineyards on 840 farms. Chautauqua County has more than 20 wineries, and the Lake Erie Concord Grape Belt is the oldest and largest Concord Grape growing region in the world. Our very own Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Lab in Western New York provides outstanding extension, education, and research to the grape and wine industry. It has been rewarding to have worked extensively on policy and programs to advance this vital component of New York’s economy, and my new role at the CoE allows me to continue to focus on bolstering the industry.
What was the best piece of advice you have received?
I was my grandfather’s shadow on the farm when I was growing up, and he always was a great inspiration. In spite of the Great Depression and many other hardships, he and my grandmother worked hard to overcome personal and financial adversity to make sure that all of their four children were first generation college graduates. He never lost his sense of humor, and loved to laugh. When he was young, he had to leave school to work on the farm and help provide support for his mother who was dying from tuberculosis. He used to joke that he "was kicked out of third grade for not shaving" – but then would follow up with a serious discussion about the critical importance of getting a good education – so we could have opportunities that he never had. It was a message that all of his 21 grandchildren took to heart.