Published in Food/Agribusiness
Swanson Pickle Co. in Muskegon County has stayed open during the pandemic but has also faced challenges with variable demand. Swanson Pickle Co. in Muskegon County has stayed open during the pandemic but has also faced challenges with variable demand. COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan Food Processing Association helps companies tackle COVID-19 challenges

BY Sunday, October 11, 2020 07:00pm

Under the guidance of Executive Director Marty Gerencer, the West Michigan Food Processing Association incorporated as a 501(c)(6) in February with a multi-pronged approach to support the food industry across a five-county region.

However, one month and one grinding health pandemic later, the focus of the organization has temporarily shifted to help meet the more pressing needs of the area’s food processors.

“The association quickly moved into COVID support,” said Gerencer, whose experience in the food industry includes a 20-year stint with Fremont-based Gerber Products Co. “We dropped everything we were doing and moved into how we could support the industry and West Michigan through what we could help with. They were glad to have our help — the small entrepreneurs as well as some of the larger ones in the area.”

Originally created out of the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative, which was a project with broad support from Muskegon County community organizations like Muskegon Area First, the West Michigan Food Processing Association picked a tough time to incorporate and embark on an ambitious journey of serving as a conduit for the industry and the resources to bolster local businesses.

Working primarily with food processors in Newaygo, Oceana, Mason, Ottawa and Muskegon counties, the organization focuses on infrastructure, education and training, product development, logistics, healthy processing and sustainability.

As well, the West Michigan Food Processing Association broke ground on the FARM (food, agriculture, research, manufacturing) Incubator and Research Center, a 12,000-square-foot facility to be located on the campus of Muskegon Community College. The $2 million project will serve as a development and training facility for the food processing industry.

With 5,000 farms throughout the region, West Michigan accounts for 43 percent of the state’s food processing jobs. Still, local processors are missing out on plenty of additional opportunities since 80 percent of what is grown in Michigan is then sold and shipped to out-of-state food processors.

Also, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and people shifted to buying food from grocery stores instead of restaurants, it highlighted the importance of the food industry here at home.

“(People) started to realize where the food comes from and that food processing is an industry and a force to be reckoned with,” Gerencer said. “The farmers in Michigan number into the hundreds of thousands and contribute $100 billion-plus to the state of Michigan, which is second to only the auto industry. For some people, that’s new news. 

“Part of the association’s role is to build awareness of what the food industry is in Michigan — in particular West Michigan — and what we can do as far as private-public partnerships to help our industry move forward.”

COVID cramps

Through working with area food processors, Gerencer identified a number of common issues that have formed in the throes of the pandemic.

Worker volume is one such issue. Some food processors grappled with workforce shortages, whether that meant failing to recruit talent to open positions or having workers who were out sick or afraid to come into work because of COVID-19. The workforce issue was a persistent problem even before the pandemic hit.

“We, overall, had a lot of labor needs in the food processing industry pre-COVID,” Gerencer said. “We’re talking about hundreds of jobs in the West Michigan area. With COVID, it just increased the issue.”

Following health protocols handed down by the state government was another common issue for area processors, as was adopting effective food sanitation processes.

Additionally, variable volume proved disruptive as institutions like schools and restaurants saw drastic drops in demand while retail demand shot up.

“That changes the rules within the four walls of a food business when the supply chain changes,” Gerencer said.

In a pickle

Ravenna-based Swanson Pickle Co., a Muskegon County producer of wholesale pickles for commercial distribution, experienced many of these issues firsthand.

Swanson grows pickling cucumbers — in addition to some corn and soybeans — and also purchases cucumbers from 10 to 15 other Michigan growers. The company brings the cucumbers to the facility, sorts them by size and quality and then puts them into outdoor fermentation cases. From there, Swanson sells the product to a manufacturer for final flavors and packaging.

Not unlike businesses in other sectors, Swanson Pickle had to wade through the confusion and uncertainty that came with such an unprecedented public health crisis.

As a food producer, Swanson didn’t have to shut down even when most other industries were forced to do so by government mandates.

“We felt very grateful that we never had to stop and were allowed to keep going, but at the same time, it was difficult,” said Katie Hensley, CFO of Swanson Pickle Co. Hensley belongs to the fourth generation of the family associated with the business. Her father, John Swanson, is president.

“Like any other business that continued to navigate through, not only were the executive orders and rules (tough to keep track of) but what’s the right thing to do to keep people safe and have a workforce that stays intact? That was really challenging,” Hensley said. 

The challenges with variable order volumes also affected Swanson’s operations. Because of the decrease in net demand, Swanson’s volume was down around 20 percent this year compared to 2019, Hensley said, adding that company sales also dipped.

“The pickling industry, while there was a positive impact on the retail side, the overall net impact … was definitely a net negative because of the impact of restaurants and stadiums not being open,” Hensley said.

Swanson Pickle Co. and many other farming and food processing companies saw some relief recently when the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) announced that it had awarded Michigan Agricultural Safety Grants to 177 farms and 159 food processors throughout the state. Food processors received $10 million in total funding, which included a $25,000 grant to Swanson Pickle.

The funding, which came from the federal CARES Act, can be used for COVID-19 testing, personal protection equipment and other facility needs.

“When Michigan was hit with one crisis after another, and when there were some troubling trends in food and agriculture nationally, we worked to ensure that Michigan’s food supply chain was safe and secure,” MDARD Director Gary McDowell said in a statement announcing the grant recipients. “And we all understood this could not be done if our essential workers became ill or felt unsafe in the workplace.”

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