Hoekstra spotlights unsung 'success story'

March 15, 2009
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Mark DiBernardo woke up last week’s panel discussion on the lakeshore economy with a bolt of lightning: Michigan agribusiness is thriving in the middle of the nation’s deepest recession in a quarter-century.

The Michigan Department of Agriculture economic development specialist said the agricultural sector grew 12 percent in 2008.

Agriculture could emerge as Michigan’s No. 1 industry after the dust from the recession settles, said U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Holland), who moderated last week’s session hosted in Muskegon by Mercy Health Partners.

Hoekstra, who plans to decide by the end of March whether to jump into the 2010 gubernatorial race, called agriculture “one of the unsung success stories of Michigan. It’s the second largest segment dollar-wise in the state of Michigan … and at the end of 2009, it may be the largest sector of the Michigan economy,” Hoekstra said.

“Our agribusiness industry has grown,” DiBernardo told the audience of about 100 people.

Joined on the panel by Mercy Health Partners President & CEO Roger Spoelman, Huntington Bank Regional President Jim Dunlap and Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas, DiBernardo didn’t talk about the financial stress on hospitals, the credit crunch or declining state support for higher education.

He did point to several major agricultural investments, including Gerber Products-Nestle Nutrition’s $75 million investment in infrastructure upgrades, process improvements and expansion of operations in research and development in Fremont, maintaining 1,100 jobs and adding 200 over 10 years; and Kellogg Co.’s W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research that will see $54 million in investments and 300 new jobs in Battle Creek over the next decade for research and development.

“We in the department are very much trying to promote and enhance our food processing industries. We know that … brings jobs, that brings value-added commodity purchases to our producers; it gives our industries markets,” DiBernardo said.

“We’ve seen changes in recent years, where companies are coming to Michigan as a regional hub for agri-manufacturing. We have the infrastructure, we have the proximity to the population and we have the resources.”

According to the state Department of Agriculture’s report for 2008, the sector creates $64 billion in total economic activity and employs one million people. That covers industries including food manufacturing, food and beer wholesaling, food, beverage, lawn and garden wholesaling, farm product warehousing and storage, landscape architectural services, and food service and drinking establishments, according to the Michigan State University Product Center.

The day after the forum, Manpower Worldwide released the results of its quarterly survey of U.S. employers’ staffing plans for the second quarter.

In the Grand Rapids-Wyoming Metropolitan Statistical Area, 15 percent plan to hire; 14 percent expect to reduce payrolls; 67 percent expect to maintain staff levels, and 4 percent are not certain of their hiring plans.

In the Holland-Grand Haven MSA, 14 percent plan to hire; 17 expect to reduce payrolls; 64 percent expect to maintain; and 5 percent are not certain.

In the Kalamazoo-Portage MSA, 15 percent plan to hire; 14 percent, to reduce payrolls; 69 percent expect to maintain staff levels; and 2 percent are not certain.

“Our economy is Michigan in affecting our ability to compete here on the West Side of the state,” Hoekstra concluded at the forum.

“I think that we are still very strongly positioned, that, once the international economy, once the national economy and the state economy comes back, because of the resources we have (and) the work ethic that we have here in West Michigan, we are going to be positioned to be very, very successful.”

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