Most Active Stories
The Upstate Economy
Full documentary: New York in the World
New York in the World, the documentary hosted by Garrick Utley, is now available online. The full, hour-long broadcast, as well as the text of the documentary, is available below. Feel free to leave comments and share with others.
NY in the World
From Niagara Falls to Long Island, from the North Country to the Southern Tier, New Yorkers number nearly 20 million.
Half of New Yorkers live in and around the global metropolis, New York City. The other half lives in other cities and towns, amid the vast beautiful rural landscapes of New York State.
The concerns New Yorkers voice about their lives and future are shared by Americans across the country. But New York is special. No other state in the nation has benefited as much from the global economy and suffered as much as New York.
From the bonuses, bailouts and wealth on Wall Street, to the remains of once mighty manufacturing industries in much of the rest of the state, this is New York’s new reality. And now New Yorkers, young and old, urban and rural, are working to find the shape of their lives and their futures.
In the beginning
The story of New York begins with a tiny settlement perched precariously on an island.
Tour guide Rick Landman has a passion for the rich history of the old city and guides visitors through the twisting streets.
“I’ve lived down in the southern tip of Manhattan for 33 years and right now we’re standing at the corner of Wall Street, right across the street from the New York Stock Exchange and the Federal Building, and we’re just looking southward down toward seeing all of what was New Amsterdam,” Landman said. “And there was a wooden wall that was built right down the middle of the street, which was to keep out the British.”
The wall disappeared but the name stayed.
“This was not a religious utopian retreat,” Landman said. “This was not for puritans or pilgrims that wanted to live a more devout life. This was a corporation in Holland that decided, hey we can make some money.”
From the beginning, New Amsterdam, the future New York, was a global settlement. By 1640, the small company town had opened its doors to free trade, investment and diversity. At that time, 18 languages were spoken in New York City; today you hear even more.
For about three centuries, the New York “business model” for growth, jobs and a better life worked beautifully for people in all parts of the state.
It was easy to “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” or to honeymoon at nearby Niagara Falls 100 years ago. Buffalo was the second busiest railroad hub in the nation, after Chicago.
The Erie Canal, and then railroad lines, crisscrossed the state, bringing industry, investment, jobs and prosperity.
Much of Albany was electrified before New York City. Buffalo was home to major manufacturers each employing thousands of workers. Rochester was known as one of the nation’s first boom towns. Binghamton was the original home of IBM.
20th century rise and fall
By 1963 -- 50 years ago -- the mood in New York was still upbeat. When former Gov. Nelson Rockefeller gave his annual State of the State address, it rang with confidence.
“We in this sovereign state of New York are an economically advanced and prospering people…this administration has set as its goal, the stimulation of the greatest economic expansion in the state’s history. Five hundred thousand new jobs in the next four years,” Rockfelller said during his 1963 address.
Even then, Rockefeller knew that the future lay in a growing global economy.
“To advance this effort I opened a commerce department office in Montreal last September. The first outside the country,” Rockefeller said. “ A similar office will be opened this year in Europe.”
That office would be in Brussels, Belgium, the seat of the new European Common Market.
When Garrick Utley was a young reporter for NBC News, his first story was covering the opening of that very New York state trade office.
“Governor Rockefeller enters the room,” Utley said. “He speaks of New York’s vibrant economy and talented work force and their attraction for European investors. And then, I vividly recall, he looks into the assembled television cameras and says -- quote, “New York is open for business.”
Fast forward to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“When you look at the beautiful state seal, at the heart of the seal in the middle of the sheild are two ships on the hudson river,” Cuomo said “Those two ships were put there when the seal was designed to symbolize intracoastal and international commerce, that at the heart of this state is business. And we have to relearn the lesson our founders knew, and we have to put up a sign that says new york is open for business.”
“New York is open for business.” It’s the same line, but half a century later, in a very different world.
In 1963, few New Yorkers, even Rockefeller as governor, understood what was coming. Yes, the world was knocking on New York’s door. But not to invest and create jobs, rather to take them.
In the mid-20th century, radio was still a mass medium of broadcasting. Utica was known as the radio manufacturing capital of the world. General Electric employed up to 8,000 workers there. And then, the jobs vanished.
“What’s troubling about New York is that so much of the jobs in this state depended on the manufacturing sector,” Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future said.
In the 1960s, GE moved its manufacturing of radios to Asia. Entire industries, and jobs, would soon follow, first to the Sun Belt, then to Mexico and then to Asia.
“Three of the six major metro areas upstate had more than 40 percent of their jobs in manufacturing in 1975,” Bowles said. “Syracuse, Buffalo and Binghamton. Today it’s between 10 and 15 percent of their jobs in manufacturing.”
Bowles led the preparation of the report “New York in the World,” commissioned by the SUNY Levin Institute: a data-driven, in-depth study of the impact of the global economy on New York state.
“It’s been devastating,” Bowles said. “I think, you know, the upstate economies are still trying to figure out what’s their place in the global economy? What are strategies to get their economies rolling again? There have been increases in services jobs and retail. A lot of low-end jobs. But manufacturing really provided an outlet to the middle class for so many people in these communities.”
Thadeus Krone, 51, has lived in Auburn for 48 years and is currently unemployed.
“I just earned another degree from Cayuga Community College in electronics technology,” Krone said. “ I was a production technician and the lines that I was covering, which was handheld computers, just started to migrate over to China. So right now I have three degrees -- two associates and one bachelor’s. And I’m looking for gainful employment using any of the degrees that I have.
“We’re on food stamps. And we got assistance for the gas and electric bill. And, I just really want to settle down and be established. I have a two-year-old son and I’d really like him to see the wonders of the central New York area. But at this point it’s starting to look like if things don’t pick up, if companies aren’t willing to invest in people then we may have to look somewhere else.”
There are many examples throughout the state of manufacturers and workers who have found a place in the new economy, but not without sacrifice.
How Tonawanda survived
When reporter Sidsel Overgaard took a visit to the General Motors plant just outside of Buffalo, she saw how serious the company is about its competition.
“I’m at the GM power train plant in Tonawanda, and I’m taking a hike because they kindly asked me to park my foreign-made car a good 500 feet from the entrance,” Overgaard said. “ They’re not messing around here.”
For Bob Coleman there is nothing new or trendy in the philosophy of “buy local.” As a third generation employee here at Tonawanda, and the union shop chairman, it’s a way of life.
“You try to buy where you work. You try to buy where you live,” Coleman said. “Both my daughters know that I promote buy American. And they know, do not pull a foreign vehicle in our driveway.”
There’s something almost nostalgic about that sentiment and about the recently-implemented “parking lot of shame.” And, yet, while Coleman would never be caught dead owning a “Nissan or Toyota,” he knows that around Tonawanda, there is no room for naiveté.
“Years ago, you had GM, Ford and Chrysler. We had no competitors. We didn’t have Hyundai and all them here,” Coleman said. “You had people that were fat and happy, thinking that nothing would ever happen to GM ‘cause it’s such a large corporation.”
In the old days those words: “fat and happy” would have been an odd choice for a union man to use in talking about workers. But lately, union and company leaders are finding themselves on the same side of the table more often than not.
That was especially true a few years back when everything in the U.S. auto industry came to a head: foreign competition, recession, high oil prices, and an antiquated lineup of gas-guzzlers. Coleman said, “ it was a perfect storm” and it brought GM to its knees.
During those dark days of 2008, Joe Frontera, a team leader who has been at GM for 37 years, experienced that storm firsthand.
“I was working over in plant one at that time. You could feel it. You know, not many people around, nothing really happening, other than everybody having their fingers crossed,” Frontera said.
Then, in June 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. The government stepped in with a $50 billion bailout. The auto workers’ union made some major concessions. One month later GM emerged, a new and streamlined company. As part of the reorganization, GM shed 20,000 U.S. jobs and shuttered several plants.
Tonawanda was lucky. The plant, which at its height in 1969 had employed 12,000 people, was now down to just shy of 800. But its doors stayed open. And then in 2010, came word from on high: Tonawanda would be awarded two new engine lines, and an investment of almost $1 billion.
“Once we got the word that we were going to get the new engines, things really started to happen fast,” Frontera said.
Now, with two new engine lines in production, the former number of employees, 800, has more than doubled.
But there’s a catch. The reason GM can afford to hire workers is because pay has gone down. A critical agreement between GM and the United Auto Workers in 2007, for the first time established a two-tier wage system, under which many new hires now get about half of what older workers earn for the same jobs: about $16 per hour versus $29.
You might wonder what that would do to morale.
“That particular issue is still developing,” Frontera said. “We’re starting to see the tier-twos slowly being integrated with the rest of us. So, it gets you thinking about, hey, why have me here if you can have this employee here doing just as good a job or better than me and making half of what I’m making?”
“When you look at all the positives and the benefits and the upsides, it’s tremendous,” Steve Finch, Tonawanda plant manager said.
“We’re 'insourcing' work, we’re growing our ranks, we’re bringing people in.Yes, they pay less than what an employee would have gotten before. But they’re still a good paying job. Still a very good job.”
Even though $16 per hour is far above minimum wage, union officials hope that with GM back to profitability, that number will go up.
Finch adds that, with more competitive wages, GM is not only re-importing jobs, but exporting more product.
“For instance, one of our engines gets shipped to China to go into vehicles over there,” Finch said. “ I think people should realize that it’s not always, you know, the foreign manufacturers coming into the U.S. We’re starting to do more and more where it’s going the other way too.”
All in all, there’s surprisingly little hand-wringing -- at least in public -- about the new realities of manufacturing. And Coleman said what a family used to do on one salary, now takes two -- that’s just how it is.
“We have to be competitive with the foreign companies or we’re not going to have the work here,” Coleman said. “I mean nobody wants to see a huge drop in pay like that, but we also see what the competitors -- it’s a change, it’s a huge change. And people see that. So they welcome any kind of job out there today.”
The truth of that statement is evident every time Tonawanda hangs out its help wanted sign and the applications stream in. As for his own kids, Coleman’s family legacy with GM seems likely to end with him. His oldest is going into nursing.
As the GM plant in Tonawanda marks its 75th anniversary in 2013, it is a happy commemoration. But no one there can forget the price of success, or merely survival. Where in 1969 there were 12,000 workers, today it’s fewer than 2,000.
New York City manufacturing reinvents itself
And then, there is the other end of the Empire State. New York City: crowded, noisy, ever-changing. It, too, was once a major manufacturing center.
In 1950, the garment industry employed 300,000 workers. Most of them were women earning low wages while producing massive amounts of clothes.
Ida Law, born in Hong Kong, is the sales manager at High Production Company on West 35th Street in Manhattan, a small company in a loft-style space. About 20 women are working here, most of them came from China. Most are paid by piece.
“We’re making mainly, as you can see, apparel. I think 80 percent of our products, those are bottoms. Then ten percent are dresses and also jackets”.
There used to be an enormous garment or apparel industry in New York City. It disappeared when jobs went overseas.
“It used to be 95 percent in the ‘70s being produced here in the U.S.,” Law said. “Now only five percent remains in the U.S.”
But the story of what happened then is dramatically different from cities elsewhere in the state.
New York City’s Fashion Week attracts nearly a quarter million visitors from around the world and has an economic impact on the city of more than three-quarters of $1 billion.
From the remains and memory of the city’s garment industry, and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, arose something new. A designer-fashion industry with high skill and higher paying jobs.Today, New York City is a global fashion center.
It is a textbook example of the advantages of a large city that can draw talent, launch businesses and build a global industry.
Fashion designer Nanette Lepore grew up in Youngstown, Ohio.“I was the granddaughter of a bricklayer and on the Irish side of the family a carpenter,” Lepore said.
Lepore and her husband, Robert Savage, left Youngstown, Ohio and came to New York City in 1982. She wanted to work with a big name designer. When that didn’t work out she became her own designer, and started her own brand in lower Manhattan. Not far from where the Dutch had launched their first businesses more than 300 years earlier.
“We had found a storefront on First Street between First and Second, between a gas station and a soup kitchen, and the rent was $500 a month. So when I didn’t get the Ralph Lauren job, we signed the lease and we started a business,” Lepore said.
“Today we’re an international brand and we have a retail volume of around $50 million to $70 million,” Lepore said.
Savage, not only Nanette’s husband but also CEO of the company, recalls the day he approached a bank manager about getting money to open shop in the then-emerging East Village.
“He said no one is going to lend you $5,000 to do that,” Savage said. “He said does your kitchen need to renovated at all and I said yes, I have like a Bunsen burner for a kitchen. So he said write it up as a home improvement loan. So that’s how we got the first $5,000 to open the door.”
The growth of the new designer-fashion industry began in the 1970s with an insight and an idea; the future would belong to the creation of brands, designer names catering to the mass market of consumer aspirations.
And so today, the names and brands of Calvin Klein, Donna Karen, Tommy Hilfiger and many others are easily recognizable.
But like any industry, designer fashion depends on skilled workers, a pool of talent constantly fed by students who come out of good schools such as FIT, the Fashion Institute of Technology, part of the State University of New York.
Jerry Dellova teaches at FIT. He works with seniors on their final design projects.
“I try and teach my students, whether they are graduating seniors or the other class I’m teaching or freshmen, to have what I call a critical eye,” Dellova said. “In New York, there’s a bustling feeling here that the kids like. And I think the energy brings them here. It’s also a place that dreams are made. There’s all those songs about it, and I think that everybody who comes to New York is a dreamer.”
FIT senior, Lynn Choi is from Chicago and has traveled internationally to Milan, Paris and Spain. But she says New York is different.
“I feel like New York has more cultural differences and more influences from different places,” Choi said. “In New York you can intern at the top design houses and get all this experience learning from different designers.”
Miguel Pena, a senior from California, emphasizes another key advantage of a large global city.
“I think it’s just so resourceful here,” Pena said. “You can find anything you need start to finish including factories or mills or people who dye things for you all in range of five or six blocks.”
But it takes more than design talent, from Ralph Lauren or, one day, from a Lynn Choi or Miguel Pena, to build and sustain a fashion company. Dellova knows what that is and and teaches it.
“It’s all about business,” Dellova said.
Joanne Arbuckle, the dean of FIT’s School of Art and Design, says a curriculum can teach to the industry’s needs.
“Being a career-driven school, and having industry professionals as members of our faculty, we have a very fluid curriculum,” Arbuckle said. “And so, our curriculum moves with the needs of the industry, with where we project the industry is going, and that creates a very different college graduate.”
One of those graduates is Michelle Sweet. The Skodack, N.Y. native is one of many New Yorkers and young people anywhere, who move to where they see opportunity and a way to fullfill their dream.
“I just feel like there’s so much energy in New York,” Sweet said. “And there’s so many different people and cultures that come to New York that there’s so much inspiration and things you can see around and experience. Just so much more exposure to different areas.”
Upstate vs. the City
With so many people making a move to New York City or its surrounding areas, there has been a population shift throughout the state. If you look at New York state as a big board with lots of marbles on it, many of those marbles, people like Michelle Sweet, are rolling into the lower right hand corner of the board, New York City and its metro region. Or they’re rolling off the board and going out of state.
“Most of the upstate cities we’ve been looking at have lost 25 percent of their population in the last 30 years,” said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future. “From 1970 to 2010 the population declined by 44 percent in Buffalo, 32 percent in Utica, 29 percent in Rochester, 26 percent in Syracuse and 26 percent in Binghamton.”
The drop in population may also mean the loss of people who could help these upstate cities prosper.
“People are voting with their feet. Many of the people that are leaving are young people, people with talent with higher education,” Bowles said. “These are people that potentially have the entrepreneurial spirit, and upstate economies are having to make due without these very talented individuals.
As people vote with their feet, it is the expanding urban centers that are winning out. People provide talent. There are more than eight million people in and around the city. From restaurant busboys, to hedge fund managers, to Nobel Laureate scientists, they form a pool of talent whose breadth and depth is unrivaled in the world.
And there is money. In a city like New York, money follows talent just as talent follows money and opportunity. They all come together to form a virtuous circle of growth in the 21st century economy.
But despite its successes, New York City has higher unemployment than the national average. Manhattan may have the highest median per capita income of any urban county in the United States, but the neighboring Bronx has the lowest. The city is a place of extremes as well as dreams.
Expensive New York City real estate is just one of the extremes. On 57th street in Manhattan across from Carnegie Hall, a tower is rising. The price for an apartment at the top: $80 million.
Barbara Fox, a veteran real estate broker, says people come from far and wide to spend their money on such apartments.
“Relatively speaking our economy is much safer than a lot of the economies in nations like China and Russia, and those in South America,” Fox said. “We’re getting a lot of South American money coming in. And then there’s always the Americans, the New Yorkers, the financial people who are making tons of money right now, great hedge fund money coming into the city, and staying in the city. And that’s who’s spending the money. And spending the tens of millions of dollars.”
In a real estate market like New York City’s, it’s the middle class that often struggles.
“New York really doesn’t have a lot of opportunity for housing for the true middle class,” Fox said. “It can be brutal, the so-called middle class is who is the most affected by this.”
Today, if a young person comes out of college from Buffalo, Utica, Los Angeles or Chicago and comes to New York City, finding an affordable living arrangement may be the biggest challenge.
“What kids are having to do at this point, is they’re having to is to have to take apartments with other kids to be able to afford it. For example, the average two bedroom apartment downtown is about $4,500 a month now, so if four people share it, they can put up a couple of walls to separate rooms for their bedrooms, and that’s how they live,” Fox said. “It’s almost like dorm rooms.”
But, despite the excitement of a big city, not all 20-somethings want to live like sardines packed into urban “dorm rooms.” There are young people who do move to New York only to discover, sometimes, to their own surprise, success can be found elsewhere. Sometimes, back home.
The Rochester story
That’s what happened to 32-year-old Buffalo native Robert Anstey.
“To put it in perspective, I didn’t think I was coming back,” Antsey said. “I lived in Montreal, London, Boston, New York. I really did not foresee coming back to western New York.”
Now, he and his partners are building a tech company in Rochester.
“When I lived in New York City it took an hour and a half to get to work,” Antsey said. “So you have all these standards of living that people forget how easy it was to get around, the cost of living.”
But what really brought Robert Anstey back to western New York was more than a good commute. It was an opportunity to build a business along with his three partners, all of whom once worked for Kodak.
“Right now we’re focused predominantly on the printed electronics industry, conductive inks and conductive packaging, anti-theft and advanced electronics,” Antsey said.
The Eastman Business Park in Rochester was once the sprawling manufacturing heart of the Eastman Kodak Company -- 1,200 acres in the city.
Rochester has long been home to other leading technology companies such as Bausch & Lomb and Xerox. But Kodak was the heart and soul of the city, and the main engine of its prosperity and the symbol of its pride.
George Eastman, Kodak’s founder, grew up in Rochester. In 1905 he built a 50-room home in the city, where he lived in splendor with his mother; he never married. Today, the house is a museum where Kathy Connor is the curator of the George Eastman Legacy.
“As the company expanded and as there was more research and development he needed to be able to recruit highly educated people from some big cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and so he started to work on making Rochester a better place to live and work and raise a family,” Connor said. “Many of the things we had back then couldn’t compete with the large cities we and so he began to invest money of his own in educational institutions, many of the hospitals, the Eastman theater and the Eastman School of Music, so you could have quality caliber musicians and concerts and plays performed here in our community.”
George Eastman, debilitated by a painful condition, committed suicide in 1932. But Kodak continued to prosper. By the early 1980s, 60,000 people worked there. But the once dominant global brand in film missed the digital bus, big time. The company sank into bankrupticy, sold off many of its product lines and patents, even sold its own name, Kodak, to a company that will now put the name on its digital cameras.
As it emerges from bankruptcy, Kodak will be a much smaller company focused on commercial imaging. With much more space than it can use, it is offering facilities and support for new, small businesses to grow.
“If Kodak made enough film to go around the moon and back 10 times, then there’s no reason we can’t use the same infrastructure to really bring on the smart grid and advanced transportation and advanced energy storage.” Antsey said.
That is Anstey’s vision of the future for his small company at the Eastman Business Park.
Today, Rochester’s vision of its future, is built on new technologies, just as it was in its glorious past. But could Rochester ever become a mini-New York City or a mini-Silicon Valley in attracting that critical mass of talent and investment again?
Mark Peterson, head of Greater Rochester Enterprise knows the strengths and obstacles to reviving the economy in and around Rochester.
“Well, I think from an asset standpoint, one of the most powerful things for the region is the quality of the workforce,” Peterson said. “With 18 colleges and universities, including two major research universities, the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology, we have a work force that is really able to respond to the needs of high-tech businesses that are being recruited to the region and that are growing in the region.”
Doug Singer worked at Kodak for 17 years until his department was closed down in 2007. Now, like many other former Kodak employees, he is helping to build a new startup, Cerion, that produces nano-sized chemical products.
“We are very rich on ideas and innovation for products that are excellent, but as a small company we have to figure out the best way and the smartest way to get our small amount of resources out into the world,” Singer said.
Size counts. And so does money, the investment to build a new company.
“Venture funding is not an easy play in the upstate market, certainly in the greater Rochester region, even though we produce a high percentage of patents per capita, even though there’s a huge amount of intellectual property here to invest in, very often we struggle to get companies that A-round of funding that is needed to have them really grow and prosper,” Peterson said.
Like any city in New York state, Rochester needs more than skilled workers and investment dollars. It needs jobs.
But many of the businesses of today and the future do not need as many workers as the high employment industries of the past. Like the GM plant at Tonawanda that needed 12,000 employees in 1969; it can now operate with only a fraction of that. Kodak is the same. There were 60,000 workers in the 1980s and 3,000 today.
Mike Alt, head of the Eastman Business Park said most of the jobs that used to exist are not coming back.
“The new manufacturing facilities tend to be high tech, highly automated, using a lot less people, but those people need to be very well trained,” Alt said. “So in the past, a facility that had 300 or 400 people, could typically be run with 100 people now. But they will still be making high tech products, and those will be good wages.”
The vision and indeed the importance of a high-tech future can be seen in the nanotechnology sector that has grown in and around Albany. It has taken massive investment from business and the state to get it launched. Now, the nano sector is spreading to the Rochester region with new facilities.
And then there is the other side of the Rochester story.
Bill Johnson came to Rochester in 1972 to head the local office of the Urban League and to make Rochester his home. Later, he served three terms as the city’s mayor, then joined the faculty of the Rochester Institute of Technology, RIT.
“We have more concentrated poverty than we’ve ever had,” Johnson said. “There are more neighborhoods where the unemployment rate is rising. Their performance of schools is getting worse. There is still way too much crime, way too much abandonment.”
Johnson says he isn’t sure what the city’s future looks like, even with new companies.
“We do have these new companies coming aboard and they are creating you know five, 10 or 20 jobs, which doesn’t even come close to matching the need,” Johnson said. “We are training students to come up with new technologies that will actually displace more and more people. I mean, in the name of progress that is wonderful, but then you have to ask yourself ultimately: how do we intend to support all of these people? You know I know the question, I just don’t know the answer.”
Peterson says part of the answer is education and skills.
“On the one hand you have stubborn unemployment and on the other hand you have some companies here right in our own region that have hundreds of jobs available right now if they could train the workers, or had trained workers to be able to take those jobs, they’d be able to grow further than they can right now,” Peterson said.
And what does former Mayor Johnson see ahead?
“We do see progress. We see these companies, they are turning out products, they are taking products to the marketplace, and yet very few people directly benefit in terms of employment,” Johnson said. “I don’t see any reversal to that trend. I wish I did.”
Trends can be tricky things. They can be downward, or turn upwards
The oldest industry: agriculture
One of the oldest manufacturing industries in New York, older than the railroads, or the steel mills, is the manufacturing of food and drink: farming.
Back in the 1930s, Finger Lakes resident Carl Mortensen never could have imagined that, one day, the lakeside houses around there might sell for half a million dollars, or more.
“When I was a little nobody wanted lake property much cause you couldn’t grow any corn down there, you know,” Mortensen said.
In those days, agriculture reigned supreme, and it was the land, not the water, that served as his small town’s link to the rest of the state.
“New York City was full of horses. They used horses for everything,” Mortensen said. “And our big thing then was to put up oats, straw and hay and like that and ship it to New York City.”
What happened next was the gradual disappearance of farms and farmland to urban development, to the allure of white collar jobs, to mechanization and global pressure that made it hard for all but the biggest and most high-tech farms to compete.
Today, many of those bigger New York farms are actually doing very well. But the other end of the spectrum relies on the people.
On any given Saturday you might find Tina DeGraff picking out produce at the farmers’ market in Manhattan’s Union Square. But it’s not for eating.
“I’m in food styling. Magazines, commercials things like that,” DeGraff said. “So, when we can, we come to the market to get really beautiful things. You got to make a pretty picture right?”
Today DeGraff is looking to snag the most glamorous mushrooms she can find, destined for the pages of Oprah magazine. DeGraff says the quality of the farmers’ market produce is top notch. But that’s not the only reason she comes.
“It’s always best to shop local,” DeGraff said. “I think that’s the best way to shop.”
That sentiment can’t really be called new any more. But as consumers continue to hop on the local food bandwagon, the financial benefits for farmers are real.
Mark Beckenridge has worked for Norwich Meadows Farm in Norwich, New York for eight years now, and every year the farm itself gets bigger, and its customer base gets bigger.
“We have the markets, and we have the CSAs [community supported agriculture],” Beckenridge said. “Many CSAs, through Manhattan here, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are our CSA days, and there’s five or six stops each day.”
Anecdotal information like this is helpful when it comes to farm statistics because the data itself is always outdated. The last big agriculture census dates back to 2007 and the next one won’t be released until early 2014.
“With the changes that are occurring in the agriculture industry right now, that’s a lot of time,” said Nathan Rudgers, New York’s former commissioner of agriculture, and someone who works with farmers, big and small, every day.
“What we’re going to find is a significant stabilization in the number of farms, a significant increase in the number of new small farms, and an increase in the amount of land in farms,” Rudgers said.
Rudgers says a lot of that is thanks to the rise of the global middle class in places like China. More money to spend, usually means more interest in animal protein, which is good news for New York, a state where dairy accounts for more than half of the $5 billion agriculture industry.
But, he says, there’s also that growing interest in eating local.
“What consumers are really looking for is someone who puts a human face on the food that they’re consuming, and who has responsibility and accountability for the quality and the safety of that food,” Rudgers said.
Few people could provide a more jovial face than Anthony Road winery owner John Martini, who’s been making the five hour trip from Seneca Lake to Union Square market for 18 years.
“I come down here, the money’s good and the show is great,” Martini said. “You see things that you don’t see at home. You see footwear that you can’t believe people actually make, sell, and someone wants to buy it!
Martini says that sense of ethnographic wonder goes both ways, as many people in New York City still don’t really know where on a map to find the Finger Lakes region.
“And now I bring the map and I point it out and they go, ‘my God you live in Canada! Isn’t it too cold up there?’” Martini said.
But in the last 18 years, there has been one very important change.
“In the beginning, for the wine, people would walk by and I could hear them say, ‘oh New York wine’ in falling tones. You know like, ‘oh it’s sweet and fruity and blah, blah, blah.’ We don’t get that anymore,” Martini said. “There’s a recognition that New York wines are better than they were. And so now we hear “oh New York wine” in rising tones. And ‘I love Riesling.’ Well, I think five years ago they probably didn’t know what Riesling was.”
Jim Trezise, head of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, said he likes to think of it as “the 30 year overnight success.”
“The number of wineries has just mushroomed in the last 10 years in particular,” Trezise said. “There are now 335 wineries, and over two-thirds of those, so 200, have been created in the past 10 years.
About 40 of those wineries participated in this year’s second annual New York Drinks New York event at Astor Center.
Restaurant and wine shop owners sip and spit in close quarters throughout the afternoon. The consumer tasting in the evening sold out weeks in advance. But lest you think this New York City buzz is simply a side-effect of the “buy local” craze, Trezise begs to differ.
“If anything, it’s the opposite,” Trezise said. “It’s reverse discrimination, if it’s local it can’t be good. It’s got to come from Europe or South America, or somewhere. And so we don’t get a break, and we have to earn our way just like anybody else, and as they say, if you make it here you make it anywhere, and we’re making big progress.”
For the last three years, Kevin Fahndreich has been a part of that progress. As the owner of Upstate Wine Company, he’s made it his personal goal to bring the metro region’s attention to the wine in its own backyard, particularly wine from the Finger Lakes. And as far as he’s concerned, it only gets better from here.
“It can get as big as any other region. There’s really nothing holding us back. We have the acreage, we have the quality, and it just keeps getting better,” Fahndreich said. “So I can’t really foresee an end in sight of where we’re going to tap out here, but hopefully not for awhile.”
Wine, local produce and even large scale dairy exports may never get New York back to the literal “hay” days of agriculture when horses filled the streets of New York City. But there sure are a lot of human mouths to feed in New York and that’s all market opportunity.
The path ahead
And so, where does New York go from here? From government programs to individual entrepreneurs to New Yorkers acquiring new skills, everyone is trying to figure out the answers. The Center for an Urban Future’s Bowles suggests some of the answers, and they rely on the people.
“We have found, especially in New York City, but really across the country, immigrants are a hugely positive force for economic growth. In New York City, they have kick-started economic growth. They are starting businesses at a very high rate. They have transformed once depressed neighborhoods,” Bowles said.
“There’s so much power for this to happen in upstate cities, as well, but when we did research across the state and we had focus groups, we heard that a lot of upstate communities have been parochial and haven’t been that welcoming towards immigrants. I think that needs to change. I’m really heartened that Gov. Cuomo and his administration have created an Office of New Americans that is trying to be welcoming towards immigrants and seeing the positive value of immigrants across the state,” Bowles said.
Then there is brain power, and New York has it across the state.
“I think that universities and academic research in today’s economy are critical assets. But too few of the technologies that are being discovered at our local universities are being developed into local companies,” Bowles said. “And so, I think that the universities, you know, they have a role in promoting entrepreneurship maybe more than they have been. The university presidents are aware of this and I think we need to make sure that we get more out of it so they can become the local economic development catalyst they can be.”
So, to what extent should New York communities look to state government for help, or to themselves for self-help?
“I think there has to be a role for the state,” Bowles said. “But the state has tried to do this for 20 years. There have been a lot of different efforts and most of them have not been working.
“We need to be making a challenge for local communities to greatly increase the number of people who go into entrepreneurship,” Bowles said. “We should be challenging local communities to increase the percentage of their population that have a two or a four year degree by 10 percent over the next several years. We should be challenging the local communities to roll out the red carpet for immigrants and see if they see a five or seven percent increase in the next few years.”
Does New York, and its people, have what it will take to get there?
“You know, we did focus groups and town halls in between the SUNY Levin institute and around the state. I was really struck by the optimism that still exists in a lot of places,” Bowles said. “In New York we’re starting to see a lot of stakeholders get to that point where what’s worked in the past is not going to work in the future and we need to do something different. I think we’re starting to get there in New York and I think that’s really healthy.”
In the end it comes down to the people of New York, as well as Americans across the nation. How can the people adapt to the forces of new technology, a global market place and a changing society? Helping the people to understand where the state is and where it’s headed is the role of New York in the World.
WRVO would like to thank all of those who made this production possible. The documentary was hosted by Garrick Utley and produced by Sidsel Overgaard. Catherine Loper was executive producer.
Stay tuned for more content in the NY in the World series.