USDA breaks ground on $70M lab for grape research at AgriTech

Officials break ground for the National Grape Improvement Center on June 26 at the Cornell AgriTech campus in Geneva, New York. From left: David Schulenberg, chief of staff for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Planning Branch; Simon Liu, administrator of the USDA Agricultural Research Service; Xochitl Torres Small, USDA deputy secretary; U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York); Christine Smart, Goichman Family Director of Cornell AgriTech and associate dean of CALS; Cornell University Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff; and Gan-Yuan Zhong, ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit and ARS Plant Genetic Resources Unit research leader. Jason Koski/Cornell University


Cornell AgriTech will soon be home to the National Grape Improvement Center, one of the largest cold-climate grape research facilities in the world.

On June 26, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), legislators and Cornell leaders broke ground on the new state-of-the-art federal research facility at the AgriTech campus in Geneva, New York. The $70 million center is expected to propel innovation, foster collaboration and revolutionize grape production nationwide.

Grapes bring $162 billion annually to the U.S. economy, but growers face formidable challenges related to climate change, including invasive pests, diseases and extreme environmental conditions – all with potentially devastating economic consequences.

“Today everyone in the Finger Lakes can raise a glass and cheer as we break ground on America’s new National Grape Improvement Center,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York), who has been a strong advocate for the research lab’s location in New York state. “Geneva and the Finger Lakes will now be the beating heart of research and innovation for the future of America’s wine and grape industry thanks to this facility and the groundbreaking partnership between Cornell and USDA.

“From the wines made here on Seneca Lake to Concords grown for juice and jelly, this region has time and time again proven itself as the leader in innovation when it comes to America’s grape culture,” Schumer said. “This massive 70,000-square-foot lab will help cement the Finger Lakes legacy within the global wine industry and marks the start of a new chapter for something greater. In 2018, I promised to push for this center and secured the $70 million federal investment to make today possible. Now with shovels hitting the ground we can finally pop the cork to say the future of America’s wine will flow through the Finger Lakes.”

The research facility will introduce sustainable solutions such as disease resistant and climate adaptable grape varieties, and innovative and efficient management strategies for growers to use in the field.

Cornell AgriTech grape researchers have long been at the forefront of fruit breeding, pest management, disease resistance, sustainable production and precision viticulture. The new facility will enable both independent research and collaboration among scientists at Cornell and USDA-ARS.

“On behalf of Cornell University, I am grateful for the federal investment that is building the USDA-ARS National Grape Improvement Center on the campus of Cornell AgriTech,” said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff. “Locating this state-of-the-art facility here recognizes the longstanding and productive partnership between Cornell and the USDA-ARS Grape Genetics Research Unit, and solidifies the Finger Lakes as the hub of cold climate grape research in the United States. We are particularly grateful to Senator Schumer for his consistent leadership and to the New York wine and grape industry for their unflagging support of this project over many years.”

Grapes are produced in all 50 states, so U.S. growers face highly variable climatic conditions. The national center will house USDA-ARS’s Grape Genetics Research Unit and Plant Genetic Resources Unit as well as Cornell grape researchers, facilitating a greater understanding of the intrinsic adaptive capacity of grapevine species and cultivars across the country to tolerate an increasing number of threats.


“Leader Chuck Schumer has been an unrelenting advocate for agriculture research generally and the National Grape Improvement Center at Cornell University specifically,” said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Xochitl Torres Small. “President Biden and USDA are proud to partner with Leader Schumer to invest in agricultural science and research that saves costs for farmers and provides them with a fairer share of the food dollar. Once open, researchers there will also advance climate-smart sustainability practices that support New York farmers and rural communities on the front lines of natural disasters and extreme weather.”

The new center will strengthen the grape research community by enhancing opportunities for scientists to collaborate across disciplines and between organizations. For example, Jason Londo, associate professor of horticulture, will focus on climate change adaptability using USDA-ARS imaging capabilities, and Maddie Oravec, assistant professor of horticulture, will use USDA-ARS’s genetic resources to develop improved grape varieties.

The building’s design will provide large open spaces for grape robotics studies, enhancing partnerships between faculty including Katie Gold, assistant professor of plant pathology and Susan Ecker Lynch Faculty Fellow, and Yu Jiang, assistant professor of horticulture, who have teamed up using remote sensing, robotics and artificial intelligence systems to help growers detect diseases in grapes.

“The USDA-ARS National Grape Improvement Center will strengthen our enduring research collaboration with the USDA, ensuring a promising future for the grape industry in New York state and beyond,” said Christine Smart, the Goichman Family Director of Cornell AgriTech and associate dean of CALS. “We’re excited to join forces with the USDA to revolutionize solutions for the grape industry.”

Sustainability is pivotal to the mission of the new center, which is expected to improve cultivation, quality and yield for grape producers nationwide. By addressing climate-related challenges – including water availability, pest infestations and pathogen threats – researchers will help ensure that grape production remains viable even in changing conditions.

The introduction of new grape cultivars that thrive in diverse climates will provide growers with alternatives to the classic European grape varieties. Producers will also benefit from streamlined processes, leading to increased efficiency and productivity.

“New York and Cornell AgriTech have been leaders in viticulture, conducting innovative research at the Lake Erie and Geneva experiment stations for decades,” said Sam Filler, executive director of New York Wine and Grape Foundation. “The USDA-ARS National Grape Improvement Center will strengthen New York’s leadership in viticulture by establishing it as the central hub for addressing the challenges of grape-growing in the United States, both today and in the future.”

Construction of the new building is expected to start in fall 2024 and completion is anticipated in early 2027.

Elizabeth Myers is a senior writer in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

1 Comment

  • Thank you for sharing the news release about the planned National Grape Improvement Center. This news is further evidence of the importance of Cornell AgriTech during the last 142 years of its operation. Originally created as New York’s first Agricultural Experiment Station in 1882, it has become a world leader in research and education regarding fruit and vegetable production, protection and processing. While Life in the Finger Lakes promotes the sort of things that draw people to the attractions, businesses and events in the Finger Lakes, the history of this region is also featured. I know many people would like to visit Cornell AgriTech, but it has always been difficult to provide this service. However, there is a local effort to partially address this need through the historic preservation of the first building to house the Experiment Station. The original home on the property (an 1850s Italianate mansion) became the home and laboratory of its first five scientists at the Experiment Station. However, by the 1970s Cornell AgriTech had expanded to a full campus of several hundred people working in over a dozen buildings, and Parrott Hall (the renamed building) was mothballed with the intention to create a state historic site that would welcome visitors. The 1970s were not good years for special items in the state budge and the building sat idle. By 2017 the building had decayed to the point where the state (who still owned the building) declared it unsavable and announced its demolition. A group of present and former employees of Cornell AgriTech and community members created the Friends of Parrott Hall to stop the demolition, and with the critical assistance of the City of Geneva, the Landmark Society of Western NY and the Preservation League of New York State were successful in licensing Parrott Hall from the state with the intention of restoring the building to the point were a developer might turn the building into a functioning connection of Cornell AgriTech to visitors (e.g., as a boutique hotel, visitor center or restaurant). With the aid of state grants and public support, Parrott Hall has been saved. But there is much more to do, and the Friends and partners are working to bring Parrott Hall back to its original glory where visitors may learn the truly astounding history of Cornell AgriTech as well as its contributions the agricultural and food industries of New York State.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *