Food industry fuels economic growth in West Michigan

August 13, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Food production and processing is “a critical industry” throughout West Michigan for a variety of reasons, according to Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place economic development agency in Grand Rapids.

One reason is the extent of the supply chain, said Klohs, noting that Michigan has the second most diverse agricultural base in the U.S., just behind California.

With so many types of agricultural products on hand, it is easy to see how agriculture can factor in to so many different products and businesses.

Food processing and distributing is a growing industry in Michigan: King Milling Co. in Lowell is expanding (its customers include Kellogg cereals); Roskam Baking in Grand Rapids has expanded twice in the last several years; Request Foods has opened a new plant in Holland Township; Gordon Food Service is building its corporate headquarters in Wyoming; Hearthside, the largest privately held baking company in the U.S., is planning to expand its plants in Kentwood and Grand Rapids; El Matador Tortilla Chips is thriving in Grand Rapids; and Continental Dairy is building a major milk processing plant in a former GM plant in Coopersville.

Food research also is a key activity in Battle Creek at the Kellogg research labs, as well as the infant nutrition labs that have been dramatically expanded lately by the Nestle Company’s Gerber facility in Fremont.

“Our area, from Battle Creek to Oceana County, is just an incredible powerhouse of agriculture and food processing,” said Klohs, and some of them, such as Kellogg, are “huge exporters.”

Another major exporter — especially to Asia, no less — is Zeeland Farm Services, which processes soybeans grown throughout Michigan.

Food business was pretty reliable during the worst of the recession, too.

“The food industry was the only one that was seeing some growth during the tightest years of the recession,” said Don Komejan, manager of Holland Charter Township.

Dan Vos of Dan Vos Construction, which has built many food processing plants over the last 60 years, said the food industry was the only one “that stayed pretty steady” through the recession, which helped his company stay busy.

“This industry is being recognized as critical to the state by Gov. Snyder,” said Klohs, adding that his administration has renamed the former Michigan Department of Agriculture. It is now the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. There is a big connection these days between The Right Place focus on economic development and that new department, she added.

For example, the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center-West, which is housed at The Right Place, offers a number of training programs on various subjects specifically geared toward food processing. Last year, MMTC-West helped more than 224 West Michigan companies save more than $710,000, retain $3.5 million in sales, and generate more than $1 million in new sales.

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