Andri Goncarovs, left, co-founder of Finger Lakes Harvest (FLH), talks with Catharine Young, executive director of the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture. FLH turned to the center for support in tailoring its marketing efforts to an online audience due to social distancing restrictions brought on by COVID-19.

Cornell AgriTech center helps business adapt to COVID-19

While many businesses in the New York state food industry have been physically closed since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for their products has not stopped.

Cornell AgriTech’s Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture (COE) has been helping food and ag businesses adapt to the COVID-19 economy with new marketing strategies and by diversifying products.

Cornell impacting New York State

“Our mission of helping startups and existing businesses succeed is more important than ever,” said Catharine Young, COE executive director. “Our team is providing essential, invaluable resources to food, beverage and ag companies who have found themselves grappling with evolving market conditions, changes in consumer behavior, supply chain disruptions, labor issues and dried-up venture capital resources.”

Growers, producers and manufacturers are turning to COE for advice about shifting their sales strategies, information about changes to state and federal regulations, and guidance about the Small Business Administration’s loan forgiveness programs.

“We have clients whose world is changing, and they are looking to us to help them succeed during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond,” said Ed Maguire, COE business development specialist.

For example: Finger Lakes Harvest (FLH) produces health tonics, drink mixers and fruit extracts, using locally sourced ingredients, in leased space at Cornell’s Food and Technology Park in Geneva.

Prior to the pandemic, about 75% of FLH’s annual sales came from in-person transactions at farmers markets, trade shows and specialty retailers. For the company, establishing a direct relationship with their consumers has been vital. 

With events canceled and shops closed, FLH turned to the center for support in tailoring its marketing efforts to an online audience. Dorothy Poppleton, FLH co-founder, said the company has seen a rapid increase in sales for its elderberry, ginger, tart cherry and turmeric products, thanks to targeted ads on social media and online sales platforms.

“Our views and sales on traditional marketplace venues such as Etsy, Amazon and eBay are up over 700% from last year,” Poppleton said.

Siena Development, a Long Island-based food and beverage developer, saw the growing shortage of hand sanitizer and wanted to shift its day-to-day operations to help meet consumer needs. COE connected Siena with industry experts at Cornell AgriTech, who walked through the logistics of using its current equipment to manufacture a new product, and the steps for retail distribution.

“Ultimately,” Maguire said, “we helped them identify an opportunity to develop and package hand soap, instead of hand sanitizer. It’s really been tremendous to see how resilient and innovative food and beverage companies have been in spite of the challenges of this virus, and the number of times they’ve asked not ‘How can you help me?’ but ‘How can I help others?’”

One of the center’s key roles is helping businesses explore their ideas and make sure they have the tools they need to bring those ideas to fruition. Maguire said the center has also seen numerous inquiries from startups looking to enter the food and ag industry, in spite of current market uncertainties.

“We now have people who have been floating around ideas,” he said, “who because they have suddenly found themselves out of work or working from home have more time to focus on bringing their businesses to life.”

And regardless of business owners’ individual needs, Young said being available and accessible to food, beverage and ag companies is what is driving the center during COVID-19.

“Whether we are helping startups with their business plans or looking at ways that we can assist farmers during the upcoming growing season,” Young said, “we want members of the food and ag community to know that we are here for them.”

Carrie Wheeler-Carmenatty is the marketing and development specialist at the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture.

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Lindsey Knewstub