Asparagus harvested at Golden Hart Farm, in Hart, soon may be part of the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative. Courtesy Consumers Energy
An ambitious plan is taking shape on the lakeshore to grow the region’s labor pool and expand product development and agriculture exports.
With the help of a $232,000 grant from Consumers Energy and support from the Community Foundation for Muskegon County and at least 60 West Michigan stakeholders, the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative launched last month.
The four-pronged strategy aims “to build the food processing industry in West Michigan, starting with Muskegon County,” said Marty Gerencer, principal of Norton Shores-based Morse Marketing Connections consulting firm, who is the initiative’s project manager.
“Through a number of studies commissioned by Consumers Energy and others in the past several years, we identified Muskegon as a point of reference and opportunity as a transport hub, with all the fresh fruits and vegetable growers, processors, wastewater capacity, available land, access to major highways (U.S. 31 and I-96), water, rail and a small airport, if that would be of need to transport (products) across the country or internationally,” Gerencer said.
Gerencer and fellow member of the initiative — Dennis Marvin, principal of Okemos-based Community Engagement Services, an economic development consultancy — wrote a one-page report that explains the initiative will consist of four concurrent actions:
Implementation: targeting industrial processing sites, supply chains and industries planning to expand and export throughout the U.S. and as far away as Asia
Education/training: linking education partners, including Michigan State University, Muskegon Community College and Grand Valley State University, to launch a food-processing curriculum for developing the labor pool
Product development incubator: identifying existing kitchens in Muskegon and other locations, creating a “test restaurant incubator” with culinary schools and adding food-processing incubation centers
Logistics: Promoting Port of Muskegon, developing cross-lake shipping initiative, weighing rail, truck and air shipping capacity, leveraging food hub and distribution networks
The plan might seem like a tall order, especially with a target completion date of 2020, but Gerencer said most of the raw materials already exist in West Michigan; it’s a matter of bringing them together.
“The way the initiative will play out over the next few years will be building infrastructure,” Gerencer said.
“We designed this the way food processors said they needed: shovel-ready industrial park sites that could be available for food processors to expand to or relocate to here in Muskegon County, increasing education — food processors identified labor as a huge issue — and the talent base they need for full-time food-processing jobs, which require technical skills.”
She said MSU and MCC are planning to offer a food-processing certification and a two-year degree, and all credits will be eligible for transfer to a related four-year degree at MSU.
“We need people with certifications, two-year degrees and four-year degrees, not just four years,” Gerencer said, noting the jobs the industry requires have varying levels of complexity.
La Colombe Coffee, with processing operations in Norton Shores, and Continental Dairy, of Coopersville, already have signed on to the initiative as a way to help them meet their expansion plans.
Another component of the plan is moving food product developers from entry-level to second-stage incubation.
“Brand-new food processors trying cookie recipes or salsa that move out of the incubator at the Muskegon Farmers Market, Kitchen 242, they need a place to expand. And they don’t have the resources to buy bricks and mortar,” she said. “So, this would be second-stage incubation. It’s (for) the food processors who are not ready to go into the industrial park.”
The final piece includes gathering cost estimates for shipping freight and working with port development and cross-lake shipping plans already underway in Muskegon.
Consumers Energy sold the site of its shuttered B.C. Cobb power plant to Forsite Development earlier this year, and since then, Grand Rapids-based Supply Chain Solutions and Newaygo-based Eco Ships have entered into an agreement to create a Milwaukee-to-Muskegon marine highway for container shipping set to launch in 2018.
The utility company said it is backing the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative for the same reason it supports the cross-lake shipping plan: to spur economic development in the wake of the Cobb closure.
“We started talking with employees, local businesses and government officials to create a plan that would keep Muskegon on a path of growth and were thrilled when we landed on this opportunity,” Dennis Dobbs, Consumers Energy’s vice president of enterprise project management and environmental services, said at the launch event for the food processing initiative.
“We might have closed Cobb’s doors, but that did not mean we closed the door on our friends and neighbors along the shoreline. This initiative should help create jobs and generate a ripple effect throughout the local economy.”
Gerencer said she and her ag-industry colleagues have spent the past two to three years traveling around the state and getting “the lay of the land” among organizations that provide support to farmers and food processors.
But they also took a trip in September to the Finger Lakes Region in New York to observe and learn from the Finger Lakes Processing Cluster Initiative launched in 2011. The idea was to get some insight into how a region with a similar climate, crop yield, infrastructure setup and higher education resources has made this work.
“They welcomed us to learn,” she said. “There was a lot of comparing notes, benchmarking and learning from each other and understanding how another ‘like’ region in the upper Great Lakes has gone at this.”
The West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative will continue to seek partners as it works toward its self-set 2020 deadline, Gerencer said.
“We’re reaching out to more economic development organizations, food-processing organizations (and) farmers,” she said. “This is to provide connectivity from farmer to food processor to consumer. That takes a lot of partners.”
Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, said the agriculture industry is one of the state’s linchpins, and this initiative will add some cross-pollination.
“Michigan’s food and agriculture sector already contributes over $100 billion annually to Michigan’s economy, and (this initiative) only strengthens its future both locally and well beyond the state’s borders,” she said.
“Access to Michigan’s diverse agriculture, our incredible natural resources, a talented workforce and an array of transportation options really put this West Michigan initiative in a great position for success.”