Sparta, Mich.-based Jack Brown Produce Inc. has made upgrades to its packing line in anticipation of a big 2013 crop, said John Schaefer, the company’s president.
Sparta, Mich.-based Jack Brown Produce Inc. has made upgrades to its packing line in anticipation of a big 2013 crop, said John Schaefer, the company’s president.

BELDING, Mich. — Several Michigan apple growers took advantage of the extra time off after 2012’s disastrous freeze and upgraded their facilities.

Heeren Bros. and its sales and marketing affiliate, All Fresh GPS LLC, plan to have their new 110,000-square-foot facility up and running by mid-October, said Tom Curtis, All Fresh’s president.

The facility features 50,000 square feet of production space and 60,000 square feet of controlled atmosphere storage, Curtis said. It will replace the current Ridge King packing facility nearby. Ridge King will retain its packing facility in Belding.

The new facility will double and possibly triple the output of the existing facility, Curtis said.

It features the only Washington-style wet line for apples in Michigan, said Joel Heeren, production manager for Ridge King.

The facility has room for growth, Heeren said.

Shared space

Another new facility with an All Fresh GPS connection is scheduled to be open for business in time for the earliest Michigan apple harvests.

Elite Apple, a facility 3 miles north of the new Heeren facility, is a joint effort among seven Michigan grower-shippers, said Scott Swindeman, an All Fresh GPS partner.

All Fresh GPS is marketing the fruit packed at Elite, a 55,000-square-foot facility that features 32,500 square feet of packing space.

“It was built to accommodate more of the new fruit that’s coming on in the state,” Swindeman said, referring to increased production in Michigan.

Elite does not have controlled atmosphere rooms, Swindeman said. The seven grower-shipper partners will continue to use their own CA space.

There’s plenty of room for whatever the owners see fit to add in the future, Swindeman said. Elite sits on 25 acres, with room to grow in three directions.

New plantings

New infrastructure like the Elite plant is catching up to the new plantings that have proliferated in the Wolverine State in the past five years, Swindeman said.

Recent increased emphasis on food safety is another reason Swindeman and his partners in Elite decided now was a good time to make their investment.

“With the new requirements, it’s going to get harder and harder for some facilities to keep up to date.”

In its first year, Elite expects to pack more than 1 million boxes of apples, Swindeman said. There’s no limit to the packing options.

“The line is set up to run 100% tray packs or 100% bags,” he said.

“We can maximize efficiency in any direction we’re going.”

Particularly with the greater volumes of newer varieties coming online in Michigan, more emphasis is being placed on tray packs, Swindeman said.

Packing improvements

Sparta-based Jack Brown Produce Inc. can’t wait to run this year’s expected big crop through its revamped packing line, said John Schaefer, the company’s president.

Production capacity should be up about 25% this season, Schaefer said.

The company’s new line will do a better job of detecting bruises and internal defects, will allow labels to be printed on demand rather than requiring the company to keep a large inventory of labels, and will allow it to focus more on its specialty — custom packing.

“We’re very excited about the quality product we’ll be putting out for customers,” he said.

“Flexibility is the key to our business.”

Belding-based BelleHarvest Sales Inc. has installed six controlled-atmosphere rooms and added a single-lane packing line to complement its six-lane line and another single-lane line, said Chris Sandwick, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

The new line is better equipped to pack 3-, 5-, 8-pound and other sizes of poly bags and half-peck tote bags, Sandwick said.

BelleHarvest also has added pallet pits, which will allow workers to raise and lower pallets so they’re always at the right height for loading, Sandwick said.

That’s good for workers’ backs and for the quality of the fruit they’re packing, he said.

Hillsdale-based Glei’s Inc. is upgrading the washer and dryer components on its grading system in time for this year’s harvest, said Damon Glei, partner.

“It will give us more time in the wash bed to scrub them, and allows us to do one of the best possible wax jobs we can.”

Signs of rebound

If you want to look at how the industry is bouncing back after 2012, just look at all the new facilities going up and at all the renovations to existing facilities, said Diane Smith, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Apple Committee.

“What says more than anything is the amazing amount of investments growers have made,” she said.

Investments made by Michigan grower-shippers weren’t all physical.

Don Armock, president of Sparta, Mich.-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc., said he and others toured other packinghouses to sharpen their own best practices.