Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Dr. Jan Nyrop: Acting on Opportunities

Dr. Jan Nyrop’s remarkable accomplishments could fill a book. Cornell AgriTech. New York Center of Excellence in Food and Agriculture. Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park (Tech Farm). National Grape Improvement Center. Grow-NY Food & Agriculture Competition. He has been at the heart of major innovative initiatives in the Finger Lakes and beyond for the last decade.


As he retires from a 40-year career at Cornell on November 30th, Dr. Nyrop is focused more on how these achievements came about than the initiatives themselves. “I think my major accomplishment has been to coordinate and catalyze different individuals. I have been able to articulate a high level idea and vision and convince others to work with me.”

Reimagining and Driving Change

When Dr. Nyrop took over as director of the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva in 2017, he inherited an organization with more than 100 years of doing great science. He felt that was not enough.

I believe that agricultural experiment stations need to reimagine themselves. They need to translate science into directions that matter to the people who control the purse strings. And for the last 20 years what matters is economic development and jobs. While we are not turning away from our central mission of research and education, we need to show the impact on the economy.”

To that end, he worked with a team to rebrand the organization into Cornell AgriTech. “New York State Agricultural Experiment Station just didn’t resonate with very many people. Additionally, we had totally abandoned that we are part of Cornell. What bigger brand is out there than Cornell?”

He also expanded programs with initiatives like the New York Center of Excellence in Food and Agriculture. New York has 14 Centers of Excellence in areas like biotechnology, nanotechnology, and optics. He and his colleagues lobbied that food and agriculture were equally critical from an economic development perspective, and the center should be located at Cornell AgriTech.

By every measure, Jan Nyrop is an outstanding leader, continued former New York State Senator and Chairman of the Board of LOCATE Finger Lakes Mike Nozzolio, who has worked with Jan for many years and is a member of the Cornell AgriTech Advisory Board. “Under Jan’s leadership through many impactful initiatives, including rebranding and the establishment of the NY State Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture, Cornell AgriTech is a genuine economic development engine for the Finger Lakes and all of New York State.”

When you are driving change, you need to have a shared vision,” says Jan Nyrop. “If it’s just one person’s vision, then nobody else is on board. You need engagement from your colleagues. People need to understand that we’re doing it together. None of this would have happened without people being engaged and involved.”

Once again this pattern of thinking big and getting others engaged occurred with the creation of the National Grape Improvement Center. The backstory on the center is one of perseverance, collaboration, and advocacy. As Dr. Nyrop explains, “Cornell is a true center of excellence for grapevine biology, research, and management. We probably have the largest concentration of scientists and extension educators working on cool climate grapes in the world.”

Unfortunately, money for a new center allocated by the USDA in the early 2000s to house the scientists and a germplasm repository of more than 300 different grape vines dried up because of an economic downturn. Years of advocating finally resulted in U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer announcing $68.9 million to build a new federal grape genetics research lab at Cornell AgriTech in February 2019. “It was a little bit of manna from heaven. There was a long history but ultimately what really drove it was that we were able to articulate a vision and show that it was already real. We had the programming. It made sense to invest in a facility.”

Dr. Nyrop also believes strongly in investing in people, particularly entrepreneurs who drive innovation. That’s why he was a co-principal investigator (PI) for a grant to establish a business pitch competition in agriculture and food. Working with Empire State Development and Regional Economic Development Councils, he and his colleagues established Grow-NY. Grow-NY has grown into the largest global food and agriculture business competition. This year the competition will award a total of $3 million to seven companies.

The Big Motivator

NyropSince earning his Ph.D. in entomology from Michigan State, his motivator has been to use science to solve social and economic issues. For example, while teaching his favorite course on invasive species, he realized that it was not a biological challenge. “This is a motivational problem. We can’t fix it overnight, but we can definitely make a big change in terms of how frequently these cases present themselves. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. We keep doing the same thing over and over again. And it doesn’t change because our perspectives don’t change.”

Now as he ends his formal career at Cornell, Dr. Nyrop is not shy about getting on what he describes as his “soapbox.”

Once you get beyond core genetics, what you eat is the most important determinant of long term health outcomes. And by most accounts, the diet of North Americans is not optimal. Issuing guidelines and having food pyramids are not going to do it. So, what can you do? You need to have food taste good and be convenient. You have to have innovation, a production pipeline, and a manufacturing and distribution environment.”

He believed change would occur at the end of the pandemic when people saw empty store shelves and food equity became a political focus. Unfortunately, he has concluded that the change that is needed might not happen. “Food doesn’t elevate to the crisis point where we actually are going to be really responsive to it as a threat or as an opportunity.”

Despite that, he believes making New York and the region a center for food availability, manufacture, production, and distribution is one of the best things to do to improve people’s lives. “We can create jobs. We can improve people’s health. We can actually address climate issues and not be part of creating climate change through our food system.”

He also sees food as an important component of mental health and the ability to establish friendships, networks, and community. “I may be sounding very old school, but I think it is a huge loss that we don’t spend more time enjoying meals with our friends, family, and colleagues. It changes your perspectives on those around you.”

Embracing Retirement

There is going to be more time to enjoy those conversations over a meal starting in December, as well as spending more time with his children and their families. All his children have successfully launched careers as a chiropractor, product development manager and climate change advocate, although none live in the Finger Lakes area.

He and his wife do not plan a move from Ithaca where they have lived for 17 years after residing in Geneva. With 95 acres of a national conservatory directly behind his house, they do not believe they can replicate their quality of life somewhere else. “I know both my wife and I will be buried in the Finger Lakes somewhere.”

Dr. Nyrop plans to work on his own research, which took a backseat while he was director of Cornell AgriTech. Professor of Entomology and Associate Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Science, he has more than 144 research works published focused on the themes of biological control, pest control decision making, and quantitative population ecology.

While he isn’t committing to other projects and is enthused about retirement, it is not hard to imagine that someday he may be at the forefront of other initiatives. “As director of Cornell AgriTech, there were opportunities that landed in my lap, and people with ideas that came and talked to me. A wise person once said, ‘Opportunities are only opportunities until you actually act on it.’ I saw the opportunity, and I saw how it fit into a grander scheme. That’s what motivated me.”

« View all posts