Aug 29, 2023
Cornell honors vegetable grower for community service

After Don Reed graduated from Cornell in 1962, he went back to his family’s 200-year-old Cortland, New York, farm.

Reed’s agricultural education taught him plant genetics, which gave him the tools to create delicious cabbage now grown all over the world — and his spirit of giving back led to a lifetime of local community service.

Reed received Cornell’s 11th New York State Hometown Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni who return to their home community after graduation and make a profound effect.

Friends and family gather around Don Reed, right, after the award ceremony on Aug. 17. Photos by Sreang Hok, Cornell University.

“We recognize Don for his world-class commitment to all things Cortland County through work and farming, agribusiness, public service and a daily focus on community challenges and opportunities,” said Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations, who presented the award at the Aug. 17 event.

“His career has been underlined by an impressive commitment to his home region through the stewardship of the Reed farm, development of Reed’s Seeds and engagement in organizations dedicated to farmland preservation, the arts and public service with appreciation for utilizing your Cornell education for the betterment of Cortland County, New York State and the common good,” Malina said.

The Reed farm dates back to the early 19th century, when John Reed and Johanna Wilson Reed moved from England to America, settling in Cortland in 1810 — when James Madison was president — at the current farm location.

Fast forward to the mid-20th century, when Don Reed enrolled at Cornell in 1958. He was interested in raising cattle and he ultimately helped the farm switch from Guernsey to Holstein cows for better production. He joined the Phi Kappa Alpha fraternity and played varsity golf.

After graduation in 1962, Reed returned to Cortland to help his father run the farm and the seed business — for which he bred new cabbage varieties. By 1970, he purchased the Reed’s Seeds business and by 1983, he purchased the remainder of the farm.

Among Reed’s new varietals is superstar cabbage, a popular item because of its thick flavorful leaves, good storage and disease resistance.

Service to community

But beyond agriculture, Reed stands as a community model.

“For decades, my grandfather has been a beacon of inspiration, a catalyst for positive change and the driving force behind numerous initiatives that have touched the lives of countless individuals,” said his grandson, Zach Lee, a Cornell plant sciences major who spoke at the event.

“From developing hybrid cabbage varieties for farmers worldwide, to creating niche seed mixes for landscapers and construction companies, to supporting local charities and donating to the food bank — this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Lee said.

Reed has been a member of Cortland’s YMCA for more than 60 years, led the trustees of the United Methodist Church of Cortland and served on the board of two local banks, Cortland Savings and Homer National.

He aided the Cortlandville Planning Board, worked with the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation Service, and helped the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Joel Malina, right, vice president for university relations, presents Don Reed with the NYS Hometown Alumni Award on Aug. 17 in Cortland.

His son, Jason Reed, a film executive in Los Angeles, recalled his father’s “endless generosity.”

His father was always the first person to put his hand up when somebody needed some help, he said. “And he didn’t do it to get anything in return.”

Reed and his wife, Carol Reed, helped to raise funds for the start of the Cortland Repertory Theatre, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. He was a founder of the Cortland Community Service Club that has raised more than $300,000 over the past 20 years for local youth development programs.

Tom Dumas, a 1967 Cornell graduate and former longtime executive director of Cortland County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension, nominated Reed for the award. At the event, he described his friend as a humble servant of the community, a leader, a gentleman, a man with integrity, honest, a respected businessman and a scientist.

“Don’s respected by a lot of people in the plant industry around the world,” he said. “And he’s from our little town right here in Cortland.”

During the ceremony, a representative from the office of New York State Sen. Lea Webb (D-52nd District) cited him for lifetime achievement, and a representative of New York State Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D-125th District) named him an outstanding citizen. He also received letters from U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and U.S. Rep. Marc Molinaro (R-New York).

Tom Gallagher, a friend for more than 70 years and now president of the Cortland Community Foundation — which Reed helped to found 25 years ago — spoke on his decades of community service. The group has given away $5 million to nonprofit Cortland groups and charities; Gallagher accepted a $1,000 donation from Cornell on Reed’s behalf.

“I think what Yogi Berra said was, ‘The older you get, the better you used to be.’ Well, Yogi didn’t know Reeder (his nickname),” Gallagher said. “He’s still good.”

Blaine Friedlander, Cornell Chronicle

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