Hudsonville Products designs a better cherry tank
The tanks are a crucial part of Michigan’s tart cherry harvest.
A pair of Hudsonville business owners has developed a better cherry tank for the growers to use at harvest time and have filed for a patent on their design.
Ben Dozeman and Dave Levitt, owners of Hudsonville Products, have already sold about 500 of the new tanks; their goal is to sell 1,000 this year — “then we want to grow it from there,” said Dozeman.
A new cherry tank sells for $400 to $500, and there are thousands of them in use in Michigan. Some growers have up to 200 or more, according to Dozeman, and he is familiar with processors who have 1,500 tanks or more for use by farmers who supply them with tart cherries.
The tart cherry harvest is totally mechanized. Powerful tractor-like machines shake the cherries from the trees when ripe. The cherries land on tarps and are quickly shunted into tanks of cold water that are moved through the orchard by tractors immediately behind the shakers. Tart cherries must be kept as cold as possible before they reach the processing plant, where they are pitted and either frozen or canned.
When it comes to tart cherry production, no other state comes close to Michigan. According to the USDA, in 2013 — an excellent year for tart cherry production around the U.S. — Michigan produced almost 218 million pounds out of a total harvest of approximately 294 million pounds. The next closest states in production were Utah with 27.5 million pounds; Washington with 17.9; and Wisconsin with 12.4.
For 2014, the USDA is forecasting a total harvest of 264 million pounds, with Michigan providing an estimated 181 million.
Most people living on the western side of the Lower Peninsula have seen the white-painted cherry tanks, even if they didn’t realize it. During the tart cherry season in July, semi-trailers full of them are moving on rural roads and expressways leading to processing plants. Each filled tank is covered with a sheet of plywood and may be stacked two high on the trucks.
Each cherry tank is marked to indicate how many pounds of cherries it contains based on the depth of cherries in it, since the growers are paid by the pound. Tanks are regulated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture to ensure accuracy for measuring the volume of cherries. However, due to the weight of the water, the sides of some tanks may bow outward slightly, which means the tank may actually contain more pounds of cherries than estimated. So the structural integrity and rigidity of each tank is important.
Dozeman, 38, started Hudsonville Lumber in 2005, building wooden 20-bushel bulk boxes for the apple harvest and wood pallets. He has been successful at that, so much so that, for the last four or five years, “we’ve been the No. 1 provider of bulk boxes in Michigan,” he said. In some years, production has been in excess of 20,000, and the business had as many as 17 people employed in box production.
With that presence in Michigan’s fruit industry and familiarity with it, Dozeman and Levitt decided to see if they could develop a better cherry tank; they launched Hudsonville Products, which now includes Hudsonville Lumber.
After spending a lot of time with growers and processors learning the pros and cons of the tanks in the field, they took their first prototype to Proos Manufacturing & Fabrication in Grand Rapids, which makes metal products and assemblies. Proos engineer Steve Umstead became involved in the design, and eventually they came up with a patentable design, according to Dozeman.
Conventional tanks are typically up to 15 pieces of sheet steel welded together, according to Dozeman. Strips of angle iron are then welded on the sides to serve as reinforcement ribs to keep the tank from bulging from the weight of a ton or more of water and throwing off a precise measurement of the volume of cherries.
“We took a tank from 15 pieces and brought it down to four main parts,” according to Dozeman. In the process, they eliminated most of the welds, which are prone to rust over time and lead to structural weakness, and replaced the reinforcing ribs with bends in the steel, accomplishing the same purpose. The final design “greatly improves the overall strength” of the tank.
The state of Michigan tests a sample of each new batch of cherry tanks for “deflection” — meaning the bulge — and will allow some slight deflection on a scale of up to 150 points.
“We were within 1.7 (points),” said Dozeman. “Our tank was the first tank to pass the calibration test in the state since 1997. It was almost perfect.”
The patent was applied for several months ago, and in July the Patent Office published the Dozeman/Levitt patent proposal for review by the industry, which may indicate if a similar design is already in use.
Proos has a manufacturing agreement with Hudsonville Products for the tanks, while Dozeman does the selling. He attends agricultural trade shows on the west side of the state, from the Great Lakes Fruit and Vegetable Expo in Grand Rapids to a big show in Traverse City for grape growers and vineyards. The Traverse City region has the most concentrated tart cherry production, and a lot of cherry growers go to that show, too, he noted.
Dozeman owns half of Hudsonville Products. His two partners, Levitt and Brad Rosely, own the other 50 percent.