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A vineyard run by Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York.

Schumer announces $68.9 million for USDA grape lab at Cornell AgriTech

After years of advocating for funding to improve the infrastructure for grape research, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced Feb. 26 $68.9 million to build a new federal grape genetics research lab at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, New York.

The funds will come from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Building and Facilities budget.

“The grape industry plays a fundamental role in the upstate economy, and I’ll always fight for the investment needed to keep it from going sour,” Schumer said.

“I want to thank Sen. Schumer for his persistence over many years to see this lab built,” said Cornell President Martha E. Pollack. “He championed this project from the start, always looked for ways around obstacles, and never missed an opportunity to advocate strongly for its completion.”

Indeed, the New York grape industry produces $4.8 billion in annual economic benefits for the state, through 1,600 family vineyards that cover close to 40,000 acres, according to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation. The grapes grown on these farms feed the juice, wine, raisin and table grape industries.

In service to the vineyards, the Grape Genetic Research Unit, located at Cornell AgriTech, is a team of USDA-ARS scientists who are closely integrated with Cornell faculty, researchers and extension associates. For more than 30 years, USDA and Cornell AgriTech researchers have collaborated to learn about the genetics of grapes and use that information to improve grape quality, disease resistance and adaptability to New York state’s climate.

Lance Cadle-Davidson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), center, elaborates last summer on Cornell grape research with, left to right, President Martha E. Pollack, geneticist Benjamin Gutierrez of USDA-ARS and Bruce Reisch, professor of grapevine breeding and genetics.

One major limitation to expanding the grape research unit’s impact on the industry has been the lack of adequate facilities and equipment; it has been leasing outdated space from Cornell since it began. A USDA feasibility study for a new facility was completed in 2003, but budget constraints and a large backlog of construction projects at ARS have prevented it from being funded until now.

“Cornell AgriTech, in partnership with the USDA-ARS, will now lead New York state and the world in grape research as the result of the new facility,” said Jan Nyrop, associate dean and director of Cornell AgriTech. “While our researchers have always had an important role in the wine and grape industries, the new facility will increase our overall impact, thanks to support from Sen. Schumer.”

Cornell AgriTech has the largest concentration of grape researchers of any institution in the Northeast. The grape research team consists of a wide range of experts working on: breeding for fruit quality, disease resistance and cold tolerance; insect pest management; sustainable grape production; fungal and viral diseases; and vineyard management techniques, including digital technology-assisted precision viticulture.

Cornell impacting New York State

The grape genetics research lab also houses USDA germplasm that accounts for 1,405 grapevine accessions. Germplasm materials have helped USDA researchers uncover and characterize grape genetics, which Cornell AgriTech breeders have used to introduce 59 different grape varieties, including disease-resistant varieties.

“This new facility will provide much needed infrastructure for the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit to pursue our world-class research that addresses the U.S. grape industry’s need to maintain its competitive edge,” said Gan-Yuan Zhong, USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit research leader. “It will accelerate the genetic improvement of grapevines and allow more opportunities for on-site collaborative work connecting cutting-edge genetic research to grow the sustainability and the competitiveness of the U.S. grape industry.”

The new facility will strengthen the partnership between the USDA-ARS and Cornell AgriTech and their joint use of the germplasm repository, lab space and personnel, Nyrop said, while also providing room to expand grape programs.

“Our New York wine and grape industries are critical to our state’s economy,” said Kathryn J. Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The new, state-of-the-art USDA-ARS research facility will support important breakthroughs arising from research collaborations among the USDA scientists, Cornell scientists and others to benefit these vital industries.”

Erin Flynn, senior manager of marketing and communications at Cornell AgriTech, contributed to this report.

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Lindsey Hadlock