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Agriculture coined ‘bread basket’ of north country economy at 2014 Economic Forecast

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The agriculture industry might be coined the “bread basket” of the north country, because its products with locally grown ingredients have potential to tap the metropolitan markets of New York City.

That metaphor was used by speaker Anthony G. Collins Wednesday during the 2014 Economic Forecast hosted by the Greater Watertown-North Country Chamber of Commerce at the Ramada Inn, which featured a panel discussion with an agribusiness theme.

Mr. Collins, president of Clarkson University, Potsdam, and co-chairman of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, was joined on the panel by speakers Kevin L. Richardson, president of North Country Farms; Col. Gary A. Rosenberg, Fort Drum garrison commander; Loren C. Herod, agricultural business coordinator for Community Bank; and Stanley “Lee” Telega, New York state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The economic council, which represents seven counties, has made numerous strides to assist the agriculture and tourism industries by providing grant funding over the past three years, Mr. Collins said. Though those industries are growing, more efforts need to be made to spotlight what the region has to offer for metropolitan areas in New York City and Boston, he contended

“We need to turn on the light bulb here and direct people to where they want to get to create economic development,” he said, adding that perhaps too much regional attention is paid to the importance of large manufacturers in the region, like Alcoa in Massena. “Industry could break down, and we can’t afford to rely on manufacturers as the economic engine of our region. Development in the areas of tourism and agriculture may help offset those areas that are isolated without an economic plan.”

Underscored by Mr. Collins, the following six agriculture and tourism-related projects awarded state funding through the regional council illustrate that holistic approach toward economic development:

n The Development Authority of the North Country was awarded $1 million in 2013 to administer a revolving loan fund across the seven-county region for value-added agriculture products, offering low-interest loans up to $250,000 toward projects.

n Adirondack Meat Co., Ticonderoga, received a $465,000 grant in 2012 to build a 7,500-square-foot U.S. Department of Agriculture meat processing plant that will process and return packaged projects to livestock suppliers.

n The nation’s only U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved mobile chicken slaughterhouse was launched last summer at Sugar Hill Farm in DeKalb, town of Canton. It was funded by a $130,000 award in 2011.

n Celtic Energy Farm, Cape Vincent, received $470,000 in 2012 to purchase specialized machinery needed for its shrub willow farm, which supplies willow to ReEnergy, a biomass energy plant at Fort Drum.

n A $350,000 grant awarded in 2012 helped launch the North Country Food Hub in Canton, a 9,000-square-foot distribution facility for regionally grown and raised products.

n The Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority received about $1.1 million in 2013 to launch a marketing effort to lure Canadian tourists to the region; it also got $225,000 to upgrade two rail bridges and build a new storage facility and conveyor system for agricultural products.

“We’ve tried to spread these grants across the region so that people will know the huge potential here,” Mr. Collins said. “In and of themselves, they’re not huge projects. But if we bring them together, it shows that we have the same agricultural climate as the state of Vermont. And yet, they’re the ones feeding products to New York City.”

But New York state has the potential to rise to the occasion and compete with Vermont by selling agriculture products in New York City, said Mr. Richardson, president of North Country Farms.

Launched in 2008 off Route 37 in the town of Pamelia, the agribusiness does 90 percent of its business in New York City.

By partnering with local farms and producers, it markets and sells products with locally grown ingredients that are sold under the company brand: white and whole-wheat flour, pancake and muffin mixes, maple syrup, honey and jams.

This year the business is seeking to partner with grass-fed cattle companies from the region to market and sell meat products that would be processed at Red Barn Meat, a USDA facility in Croghan.

“I’m always interested in looking into options where I can brand quality foods, and meat is one of my interests,” said Mr. Richardson, adding that he’s only begun to tap markets in the Big Apple. Clients are all less than 300 miles or a one-shift drive away.

“Northern New York is a short, straight-line distance from New York City, and we’re much closer to Boston for agriculture products” than other states, Mr. Richardson said. For example, “we offer agriculture products that have the same benefits as Vermont, and I think our region is better. We should take advantage of this pristine agriculture up here and start feeding people in the metropolitan markets.”

More exciting news could be in the pipeline for Mr. Richardson.

He’s been asked to serve as an advisor for a startup company at Clarkson University that aims to design and build automated technology for agricultural products.

He declined to release the startup’s name.

“They design and build drones and robots for the production of agricultural products, and we believe this is an effort that could create jobs across Northern New York,” he said.

Efforts led by Mr. Richardson could also soon get assistance from the state, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced in his State of the State address he’ll launch a new “Upstate-Downstate Food-to-Table Agriculture Summit” in 2014 to connect the agriculture industry to consumers and markets.

Sponsors of the 2014 Economic Forecast included Community Bank, Visual Technologies, Sackel & Navarra CPA PC, NNY Business Magazine and the Watertown Daily Times.

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