All in the name of Progress

I swore I would write about something other than Progress this week. Yet, here I am. Subjecting myself – and our readers – to more of my thoughts on the topic. But there is, I assure you, both rhyme and reason to my actions.

Last night, as I perused the day’s edition of The Evening Sun, I stumbled upon a short brief on the State page concerning a plant closure in St. Lawrence County. 100 people will be out of work by July as a result of the decision by the yogurt manufacturer’s owners to shutter the facility.

I have never been to North Lawrence, but I think all of us in Chenango County can sympathize with the plight these people now face. We, too, have had our share of plant closures and companies pulling out. I won’t enumerate them, because I’m sure there’s already a list scrolling through your mind, as there is mine.

There have been other near misses as well. Which is why, as I read about this dairy plant’s closure, all I could think was, “there but for the grace of God.”

It is easy, I think, for people to dwell on what our area has lost - the large employers, manufacturing jobs, family farms and mom-and-pop businesses which have vanished or migrated to other parts of the globe. But all is not lost, because we are still blessed with a number of large manufacturers and businesses, big and small, which not only survive, but in many cases are thriving. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong in these rolling hills. Our people are hard working, resilient, dedicated, talented and take great pride in what they do. And I can’t help being proud of them, too.

In fact, for me, that is what Progress is all about: Being proud to call Chenango County home.

Despite my (all too frequent) lamentations on the topic, I find the work that goes into this annual publication invigorating. It allows me – and, in turn, you the reader – to get a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of the businesses and organizations which make up the very fiber of our local economy and our communities.

I feel privileged to have the opportunity to sit down with the leaders of our largest local employers and hear their take not only on their own organization, but their entire industry. To hear them talk about the pride they have in Chenango County, and the potential they see for growth in this area, is truly awe inspiring.

This year, I had the opportunity to sit down with Marty Dietrich, president and CEO of NBT Bancorp; Chris Taft of Preferred Mutual Insurance Company; Sally Venugopalan, administrator of the New York State Veterans Home in Oxford; and Maureen Carpenter of Commerce Chenango, just to name a few.

But perhaps my favorite part of the overall Progress experience is getting to see the very manufacturing floors where goods are produced in our county. This year, I had the opportunity to do just that at two very different ag-related businesses: Agro Farma and Wagner Nineveh.

During my 2 1/2 years with The Evening Sun, I’ve made my fair share of trips to the wilds of Columbus to visit the former-Kraft facility Agro Farma calls home. Before my most recent Progress-related visit, my last trip was in late August for the ground breaking of the company’s new 150,000 square foot refrigerated warehouse. I knew, of course, of the large investment the yogurt manufacturer was making in the facility. But that didn’t prepare me for the bevy of activity at the site, or the transformation already underway. For the exponential growth the company has experienced these last three years is as evident outside as it is within.

My first visit to the plant was in January of 2009. Agro Farma’s founder, Hamdi Ulukaya, gave me the grand tour of the facility and I was instantly enamored by his passion for the company, the community and the Chobani brand Greek-style yogurt which was already making its mark in supermarkets across the country. Now, of course, it’s the number one Greek-style yogurt in the US.

On this most recent trip, I met with Keven Bucklin, the yogurt manufacturer’s Vice President of Operations. What a difference a couple of years and a hundred million dollar investment can make! At first, I found it hard to comprehend the true magnitude of the company’s growth. But then I had my first spoonful of the new Black Cherry Chobani, and it all started snapping into place.

Am I proud my favorite yogurt is made in Chenango County? Without a doubt. And I’m just as proud of another manufacturer, this one specializing in furniture-grade hardwood lumber.

In the summer of 2006, floods devastated many communities in our county, including Afton. One of the victims of the merciless flood waters was Pomeroy Lumber on the Eastern bank of the Susquehanna. When the owners of the mill were ready to throw in the towel, Wagner Lumber stepped in to save the day. Today the mill, now known as Wagner Nineveh, employs 50 people and has increased production substantially. I had the chance to see just about every phase of the operation first hand thanks to Mill Manager Calvin Tallmadge, Head of Procurement Tom Gerow and “Head Coach” Bruce Richards.

My take-a-ways from the experience included a great deal of respect for those involved with the operation, as well as a Wagner Nineveh winter hat, which I wear with pride. Not to mention the large quantity of ultra-fine saw dust I’m still trying to clean out of my camera case. A small price to pay, in my opinion, for the opportunity to learn more about this company.

And all in the name of Progress.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa

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