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Fruit Growers Play Role in State’s Economic Recovery

Contact: Diane Smith
(800) 456-2753

MICHIGAN—If things go as planned, by the fall of 2013, 47 acres of farmland at Seven Mile Road and Alpine Avenue in Alpine Township will be home to a new, state-of-the-art apple packing facility and distribution center.

Bruce Heeren, vice president of Heeren Brothers, with a packing and storage facility at 5304 Alpine Ave. NW, said they are seeking approval from Alpine Township for the project, which will cost between $12 million and $15 million.

The new line will include infrared sensors to detect internal flaws, electronic color sorting and, Heeren said, they are aiming to achieve a LEED standard for energy efficiency in the new building.

“It’s going to pay some immediate benefits just in utility bills,” he said.

The investment by Heeren Brothers, which will consolidate the packing and storage facility on Alpine along with a distribution center at 1060 Hall St. SE in Grand Rapids, is the latest in a string of investments by growers and packers in Michigan.

It’s also evidence that the agriculture sector – the state’s third largest industry — is playing its role in Michigan’s economic recovery.  A recent study by Michigan State University found that the state’s food and agriculture sector contributes an estimated $91.4 billion to the state’s economy, a 50 percent increase between 2004 and 2010. (http://www.productcenter.msu.edu/productcenter/home)

“It is gratifying to see investments apple growers and shippers have made to improve their businesses not only benefit our industry and solidify apples as a top Michigan fruit crop, but also be recognized for the positive impact on the state’s economy,” said Diane Smith, Interim Director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

Applewood Orchards Inc. in Deerfield spent $1.1 million on new sizers last year, which included internal and external defect sorting.

Applewood Vice President Scott Swindeman said their investment goes along with those made by other packers and growers in the state, including new trees, upgraded irrigation and frost fans.

“To put a dollar value on what most growers have invested in the last five years would probably be mind boggling to most of us,” he said.

In Traverse City, the grower members of North Bay Produce have invested $3 million to $4 million over the past five years in new packing and sorting equipment. And another $1.5 million in new controlled atmosphere storage rooms is on tap, Sales Manager Nick Osmulski said.

“It’s certainly a bright spot in the state,” Osmulski said. “If you look at North Bay Produce as a whole, we deal with apples, blueberries and asparagus, and we’ve seen growth in all those commodities. It’s the opposite of what we’re used to hearing about the state.”

John Schaefer, president of Jack Brown Produce, 8035 Fruit Ridge Ave. NW in Alpine Township, said the last five years have seen a lot of investments by fruit growers, from new facilities to adding acreage. His operation recently invested $4 million in a high-tech packing line and 50,000 square feet of production and office space.

“I think the farmers in the state have invested a lot in their businesses to not only make themselves more competitive, but also to enhance their growing techniques and their ability to raise a product that the consumer wants to buy,” he said. “I think that bodes very well for the state of Michigan and its agriculture industry.”

Riveridge Produce Marketing, also on Fruit Ridge Avenue NW, built additional storage and a new packing plant in 2010 at a cost of about $6.5 million.

“Agriculture has always been a stabilizing force,” Riveridge President Don Armock said. “We’ve had good markets and pretty good crops. So farmers have some investable income to put into bettering their operations.

“I think it’s going to make agriculture in Michigan stronger and stronger.”

BelleHarvest Sales Inc., 11900 Fisk Road in Belding, is moving dirt in preparation for six new controlled-atmosphere storage rooms, investing $1.1 million. That is on the heels of other improvements to the packing line in the last few years, including a new internal/external near-infrared defect sorter and bagging operation. 

BelleHarvest President Mike Rothwell said agriculture was a bright spot through the state’s tough economic times.

“One out of four jobs in Michigan is directly tied to agriculture.  Packing facilities, marketing, distribution, retail, trucking, financing, insurance, packaging…they all tie back.” he said. “Agriculture has a significant impact on the state’s economy.”

Michigan Apple Committee is a grower-funded nonprofit organization devoted to promotion, education and research activities to distinguish the Michigan Apple and encourage its consumption in Michigan and around the world.  For more information, visit MichiganApples.com.