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Catharine Young: A Passion for Cooperation and Community

Inside the Cornell Food Venture Center Pilot Plant in Geneva. (Photo Credit: Cornell CALS)

Catharine Young years ago experienced the unique community bond of the Finger Lakes when her multi-generational family-run Livingston County farm was struck by disaster. An arsonist set fire to the farm’s barn. Despite her father risking his life to pull a fully engulfed hay wagon from the flames, the barn, most of the equipment it held, and some of the farm’s livestock were destroyed.

The devastating loss could have ended the business that her father and grandfather had spent decades building, if not for the Finger Lakes community. “The outpouring of support during that time was overwhelming. People were bringing food to the house. Our neighbor, who also operated a dairy farm, offered to do shifts with my dad. It got us through a very difficult time. It’s a real testament to the culture and character we have in the Finger Lakes.”

The former New York State Assemblywoman, a groundbreaking leader in the New York State Senate and current Executive Director of the New York State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech, Cathy Young is re-creating the community spirit she witnessed as a young child by connecting entrepreneurs, agricultural industry veterans, technology companies, and government resources. “I’m very happy to have this opportunity to grow jobs, help people succeed in their livelihoods, and support and expand the agricultural industry that is a foundation of our state’s success.”

During the dedication of a veterans memorial that she helped secure funding for in Olean.

A graduate of St. Bonaventure University, her life has been dedicated to serving the community and making important connections to help individuals and businesses. After almost 16 years in marketing and communications for a non-profit that serves people with disabilities in Olean, she moved into the political arena as a New York Assembly member representing the 149th Assembly District.

She then served seven terms as a New York State senator for the 57th district where she was appointed the first woman in the state’s history to chair the influential and powerful Senate Finance Committee. During her tenure she also chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, founded the Legislative Wine and Grape Caucus, sponsored legislation to create the New York State Council on Food Policy, and chaired the Legislative Commission on Rural Resources.

Promoting Opportunities

A childhood photo outside a barn on her family farm.

Catharine believes strongly in the continuation of the deep agriculture heritage of the Finger Lakes. Noting that New York was the breadbasket of Colonial America, her goal is to help current and future generations prosper. “Our agricultural history has sustained and shaped us for a very long time. It’s great to be able to continue to grow it through my work at Cornell. The culture of the agricultural community throughout the state exemplifies a spirit of cooperation I want to foster.”

To that end, the Center of Excellence serves as both clearing house and connector, providing information to businesses statewide and introducing potential partners to one another, a community service function similar to that of groups like the regional Red Cross and Special Olympics for which Catharine had served on the board of directors. “One of the things we try to do is establish business-to-business partnerships. We work with a lot of fledgling companies, entrepreneurs and startups. Those collaborations can be invaluable as they scale up.”

From controlled environment agricultural production facilities in urban centers to farming locations on Long Island to the vineyards and dairy farms of Chautauqua County, the Center of Excellence helps partners find and utilize resources available around the state with the centerpiece of Cornell’s worldwide reputation as a leader in agriculture and food production, research and education. “When you think of Cornell, you think of a lot of great things. We’re marrying that research technology and innovation into economic development.”


The motto of her organization is “Push, Pull, Grow.” This means pushing entrepreneurs and startups to scale up in New York and pulling in companies from other states or countries. For example, the Center of Excellence encourages businesses to enter programs like Cornell University’s Grow-NY, a global pitch competition to bring agricultural and food tech innovation to New York State. Catharine and her team encourage qualified clients to enter the contest, help those companies chosen as finalists and support them after the competition.

Chatting with Greg Woodworth, co-founder of Stony Brook Wholehearted Foods, a producer of roasted seeds and culinary oils headquartered at the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park  (Photo credit: Cornell CALS)

One company that recently relocated to the region is South Korean company PureSpace, a startup developing a fresh food shipping process that extends the shelf life of produce. PureSpace won $250,000 in the 2020 Grow-NY competition and after a delay caused by the pandemic, is occupying a lab at the Center of Excellence at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva. The Center of Excellence is helping the company scale up operations.

Cathy Young is also committed to directing attention to new opportunities like fermentation farming. An ancient technique used to create beer, wine and yogurt, fermentation is a rediscovered process used to produce food ingredients such as plant-based proteins and biopharmaceuticals that address increasing market demand for environmentally friendlier food production and distribution. “It’s very exciting research and taking that research and getting it out into the marketplace really will make a difference. We’re working with companies from all over the world.”

Lessons Learned from Public Service

Former Senator Young sees the marriage of her political experience and agricultural background as a union that helps sharpen her vision and focus. “It’s not just the commercialization of new technologies that may emerge here at Cornell AgriTech. It’s also linking economic growth and job development to what we’re doing. As a result, we’re able to grow the economy in New York State, and that’s very rewarding to me.”

Catherine Young with a former Chautauqua County Dairy Princess.

Throughout her years as an elected representative she has directly witnessed how legislation impacts the agriculture industry and farming families and how important the health of the state’s agricultural sector is to the overall economy. “Oftentimes, economic development projects are contingent on public policy or economic incentives to boost up a company and grow the economy and jobs. I was deeply involved in agriculture policy and economic development initiatives. All of those experiences are very valuable today.”

Catharine’s success as the Director of the NYS Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech has achieved many impactful victories, large and small. Activities she has initiated, such as providing connections to the world-class research ongoing at Cornell, sponsoring seminars, classes and scholarships for food entrepreneurs, financial funders, economic developers and others have assisted business growth throughout New York State.

Those successes were positive contributing factors in Governor Kathy Hochul’s announcement this year that New York State will appropriate $20 million to further modernize Cornell AgriTech’s Food Research Laboratory Building on the Geneva campus that also is home to the NYS Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture.

Throughout the years Cathy Young has also learned the importance of balancing her personal and professional lives. While in the legislature, she spent weekdays in Albany and returned home to Olean on weekends where she raised three children with her supportive husband, Richard. Now she keeps a similar schedule, making the 112-mile drive from Geneva to her home each Friday.

Her children are grown with two living in the greater Finger Lakes region and the third in New York City. Still, those weekends at home bring her joy and renewal by allowing her to spend time with her community, friends, and family, especially her six-year-old grandchild, who she describes as “my best buddy.”

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