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Food Industry a Star

The Finger Lakes Food Processing Cluster Initiative, an economic development project spearheaded by RIT’s Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies (CIMS), and the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I), has taken direct aim at advancing the regional competitiveness of the nine-county Finger Lakes region by leveraging the growth potential of food production and processing. “This has to be the best collaborative effort across the region that I have seen in my 15 years here at RIT,” said Andy Harlan, assistant director of operations at CIMS and the Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS). “The networking, collaboration, and working for the betterment of economic development in the region have been tremendous.”

The food production industry has been a bright star in the Finger Lakes region’s manufacturing sector. Unlike other segments, the industry is not cyclical— employment and wages increased during the recession and projections point to more growth in New York over the next seven years. Nationally, food production sales revenues are projected to double.

The Finger Lakes regional food system has all the main ingredients to support the industry’s growth—plentiful raw material production, ready sites and infrastructure, abundant fresh water, competitive workforce, major food production companies, and headquarters to major production and retailers—all a recipe for success.

RIT also has worked with more than 50 companies to reduce food waste, an issue that has been at the forefront with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s comprehensive plan to advance the region. New laws against food waste also are gaining traction in New York City and states like Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, with RIT poised to collaborate on solutions.

In addition, the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council’s Upstate Revitalization Plan includes the food industry as a pillar.

Initiative a National First

Announced in 2011, the food cluster initiative marked an innovative way for federal investment to provide food industry companies the tools and resources to grow in the Finger Lakes region.

The initiative is a three-pronged effort to provide practical, hands-on assistance programs, training, and partnerships. It was designed to assist the region’s food processing and agricultural businesses to identify and implement technical improvements and sustainable manufacturing process technologies to reduce operating costs, minimize environmental impacts, open market opportunities, and retain and grow jobs.

The awarding of the program to RIT was the result of a competitive application process through the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, and the Small Business Administration.

RIT received $997,470 from the Department of Labor’s Employee and Training Administration for the four-year program. The Small Business Administration awarded RIT $150,000 over two years. The Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration awarded RIT $400,000, which was matched by the state DEC through NYSP2I, a statewide pollution prevention institute located at RIT. Of 125 applicants nationwide, only 20 were approved for funding.

“This grant is unique—the first in the nation—because of the multi-agency cooperation,” Harlan said. “The training and direct assistance this initiative offers has enabled food companies to connect the dots by helping them develop new processes or identify better and more efficient ways to streamline operations.”

One of those companies is O-AT-KA Milk Products Cooperative, Inc., a manufacturer of milk and dairy products in Batavia, N.Y.

“We wanted to develop our employees’ skills and make them more knowledgeable when it came to operating equipment and learning new processes,” said Ashlee Leaton, human resources coordinator.

Leaton added that O-AT-KA Milk’s experience working with the program has “exceeded our expectations.”

“The grant has supported our organization’s growth and many of our new employees have benefited from the training provided, resulting in a stronger and more knowledgeable workforce,” she said.

While agri-business has always been a foundation of the region’s economy, developments in recent years have only brought it more to the forefront. A prominent example is two multinational companies building major facilities for production of the popular Greek-style yogurt in Batavia. Alpina Foods, the U.S. arm of a South American dairy company, opened a $20 million plant producing Greek-style yogurt topped with granola. It created 50 jobs initially.

The food cluster initiative has offered customized training programs for workers at Alpina, according to Harlan. CIMS began working with Alpina to train workers even before its plant opened, he added.

In order to grow, these companies need more skilled workers, which can be more difficult to find in more rural areas. The food cluster initiative has taken on the challenge of devising training programs to provide specific skills as well as the basics of how business functions.

While the initiative was scheduled to end in October, Harlan is optimistic that the program will receive a one-year extension.

“We still have funding available since there has been cost sharing with companies, who we find are more invested in the outcomes that way,” he said.