Food industry covers a lot of ground


MiFOOD2015 — the Michigan Food Processing & Agriculture Summit being held at DeVos Place on Thursday — will focus on some of the most challenging issues in the agriculture and food-processing industries in Michigan today.

Just two of the many topics are water and exports, covering the latest technological developments in water use by farmers and food processors, plus a lively presentation by one of the fastest-growing food exporters in the state.

Hosted by The Right Place economic development agency in Grand Rapids, speakers at the MiFOOD2015 Summit will include Gordon Wenk, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Mark Flegenheimer, president/CEO of Michigan Sugar Co., and more.

This is the third annual MiFOOD summit, all focused on Michigan agriculture and food-processing resources for Michigan-based companies. According to Right Place vice president of marketing and communications Tim Mroz, the first year drew about 150 attendees; last year it climbed to about 200, and this year it is expected to draw from 200 to 250. Most attendees come from the western side of the Lower Peninsula.

Mroz said the big topic last year was new changes in food safety standards; this year there is special emphasis on logistics, particularly in regard to exporting. Water is another hot topic, especially in view of the ongoing California water crisis and the huge role agriculture plays in groundwater use throughout the nation.

Exporting and the logistics of exporting are topics of growing interest among Michigan agriculture and food industries because of the commercial possibilities, as amply demonstrated by the Koeze Co. of Grand Rapids. Martin J. Andree, creative director at Koeze, has been tapped to give a lively presentation, “Export Without Going Nuts.”

Koeze, known for its high-end nut and candy delicacies and very well-known overseas for its peanut butter, was founded in Grand Rapids in 1910. At the helm today is CEO Jeff Koeze, a member of the fourth generation of Koezes.

The company began its venture into exporting about 10 years ago, about the time Andree joined the company after having lived overseas and traveled extensively abroad. He credits that overseas experience with helping him better understand offshore markets.

“A lot of people are afraid of export, mainly because they have no experience in it and it’s fraught with regulation. And how the heck do you handle the logistics?” he said.

“It’s really not that hard,” he added, but it does take preparation and there is some risk that must be weighed.

Andree will talk about the small steps food manufacturers can take to prepare their products for presentation to foreign buyers. That includes what to do at a tradeshow — and tradeshow attendance is key.

A team from Koeze prepared a booth for the New York Fancy Food Show many years ago and learned there is a lot of interest in American traditional food products by international buyers.

“We’re pretty much a worldwide company right now,” said Andree, and that overseas business is strictly peanut butter.

“It’s a decidedly American food,” he said. “It is presented as a very authentic, traditional American product and, of course, peanut butter is by its nature always associated with America.”

But peanut butter is not yet common overseas, which was a challenge that Andree will explain in detail at MiFOOD2015.

Koeze’s No. 1 market for its exported peanut butter is the U.K. There is also a lot being sold in Russia, and it is selling in South America, France, Switzerland, Germany and Canada. These days, Koeze is always represented at the world’s major food tradeshows such as FoodEx in Japan, plus shows in Europe and China. Andree has learned how to present American products at those shows and how they should be labeled.

“You’re pitching to a different team,” he said. “They have a whole different set of expectations.”

Andree will talk about the extensive export assistance that is available from the U.S. government and how to work with logistics people and freight-forwarders.

“A lot of this is pretty much voodoo and a sense of smell,” jokes Andree, “but there is a lot of it that you can really nail down based on your product and a little research on the countries you’re going to.”

His goal is to demonstrate that businesses can “get over the fear and take a look at this seriously as an avenue of growth for their business. I think there is a big market for a lot of stuff overseas, but people just have to take the leap.”

Attendees at MiFOOD2015 will also learn details about a totally different and very critical subject.

Erin Gerber, an environmental engineer and project manager at Lakeshore Environmental in Grand Haven, will provide details on the latest technology to help fruit and vegetable processors reduce their water use.

The state government took steps years ago to regulate pumping of large volumes of water from the state’s aquifers. At the same time, research by MSU has indicated that in some central areas in Ottawa County, the water table has already dropped an estimated 30 to 40 feet, and some very deep wells have produced water with salt in it.

Lakeshore Environmental recently was awarded an $80,000 grant funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research technologies that can enable food-processing water to be cleaned and used again.

Gerber said the firm works with a lot of food-processing facilities — canneries and large-volume freezer plants.

Gerber will focus on potential means of reducing water use and new technologies that are offering potential ways to clean and re-use water that would otherwise be disposed of.

A representative of Peterson Farms in Shelby also will talk about reducing water use. Peterson is a major fruit freezing operation.

Gerber said the research grant is aimed at helping advance the agribusinesses involved with Michigan’s specialty crops, especially the fruit for which the state is best known. Micro filtration is a major topic in water re-use now, along with ultraviolet purification methods and reverse osmosis.

Two of the best-known food manufacturing businesses in West Michigan will be on the agenda at MiFOOD2915. Beth Westemeyer, director of business development at Zeeland Farm Services, will talk about “Food, Feed and Fuel,” and two representatives of Gordon Food Service — one of the largest privately held American food distribution companies — will present on logistics growth, management and best practices.

John Sommavilla, CEO of Shoreline Fruit LLC, will present “Enhancing the Value of a Vertically Integrated Agriculture Business.” Shoreline, a cherry-growers cooperative, bills itself as the largest tart cherry operation in North America.

Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association will provide a Pure Michigan agricultural update.

Jim Ostrom, president/CEO of Milk Source, will tell that organization’s story. Milk Source was founded in 1999 by three dairy farmers from Wisconsin and now operates dairies in Wisconsin and Michigan. The organization strives to be a leader in modern sustainable agriculture and works with the University of Wisconsin, which produces energy from a bio-digester at a Milk Source dairy.

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