Food processing pitch part of regional plan – Hastings Banner

With federal money in the offing, collaboration on a region-wide scale is happening fast – and Barry County got on board Tuesday.

During their committee of the whole meeting, commissioners OK’d a letter of support for the West Michigan Agricultural Technologies and Regional Food Systems Initiative. 

This initiative is being driven by Erin Kuhn, executive director of the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission in Muskegon. Her commission is one of many economic development organizations from the west side of the state that are banding together to seek multimillion-dollar grants.

For this proposal, “the focus is agriculture food processing,” West Michigan Regional Planning Commission Director Dave Bee told The Banner Tuesday. 

The idea, he said, is to increase the capacity of farms and food processors and people who process food. 

Why ship the produce – and the jobs attached to processing it – out of state, Bee asked. 

“Turn apples into applesauce,” he said.

Supporting a proposal for a Build Back Better grant – part of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s portion of the American Rescue Plan Art funds – does not commit the county to any specific action. But it could open up some opportunities for additional funds, Bee said, if they get the grant. 

That’s a big if. 

The two-phase grant involves a study first, then a project phase, Bee said. 

And it’s very competitive. 

“Probably only 50 will be awarded nationwide,” said Bee, who is based on Grand Rapids.

In her talking points, Kuhn noted that Michigan is among the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation – with more than 9,000 farms in the West Michigan region alone. 

“With a long history of food manufacturing and processing, the region is a prime location for expanding and growing this sector,” she wrote. “This is an opportunity for farmers, good manufacturers, tech providers and entrepreneurs to capitalize on value-added product development that will lead to the establishment and/or expansion of new operations.”

With more than 300 different raw products grown locally, Kuhn pointed out, a location near major Midwest population centers, abundant fresh water, and the Food, Agriculture, Research and Manufacturing accelerator, “West Michigan is uniquely located to take advantage of that growth and stake its claim to being a worldwide leader in food, agriculture, research and manufacturing around AgFoodTech.”

The West Michigan Food Processing Association was created in 2017 to establish and develop a regional network for food companies and other participants of the food supply chain. 

That WMFPA focus is to connect food companies with national/international resources to catapult food systems into modernized agricultural technologies and innovations, supporting a triple bottom line of economic, environmental and social impacts, Kuhn wrote.

Then, last August, the association and the Michigan State University Product Center announced a partnership to share their expertise in food processing innovation. 

The MSU Product Center will expand outreach efforts by managing the FARM food processing accelerator that was developed by the association. 

That facility in Muskegon will provide space and technical assistance to entrepreneurs and businesses to scale up new product and service ideas into the food, agriculture and bioenergy markets, according to a joint announcement.

AgFunder’s 2021 Agrifoodtech Investment Report ranked Michigan third among the top states for its investment in this sector of the economy, because of its cold-chain logistics, automation software and innovations from streamlining production agriculture to re-envisioning convenient, healthy local food supply.

Organizations in the region individually excel in food, agriculture, research, manufacturing and business sectors, Kuhn noted, but there is a need for a comprehensive approach to using regional and statewide expertise to maximize the growth potential. 

Federal support through a regional challenge grant “would enable the region to increase capacity and create more access to resources,” she pointed out. 

“This, in turn, will aid in strengthening the regional food system, and equip the workforce of the future, based on science and data-driven protocol, ultimately increasing economic, environmental and social impacts to the West Michigan region’s food sector.”

As Bee put it simply, “We make it locally to get the benefit locally.”

One aspect to the project that could be considered for Barry County, he mentioned, would be to improve cold storage here.

In her list of project ideas, Kuhn mentioned that Barry County is currently conducting a feasibility study on cold storage capacity.

The initiative envisions high-tech, highly paid jobs in the food sector. 

With increased capacity and access to resources, the regional food system would be strengthened and equip the workforce of the future, she wrote.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted the global food supply chain, leaving food companies and other supply chain participants to begin redirect work with regional networks and logistics,” Kuhn said. “In many situations, regional players ultimately provided the solution in delivering food to retail, schools and food banks, as the state and country continued to redirect the flow of food. …

“As the flow of food redirected from institutions, restaurants and like venues, food companies were forced to repackage huge quantities of food suitable for retail, creating opportunity for MSU’s expertise in packaging and new AgTech companies with innovative solutions, to become a higher demand need for the food industry.”

The crisis forced food companies to explore and implement solutions so that operations become more effective and efficient on the plant floor.

“Strengthening regional networks and supply chains through the work of WMFPA and other partners will ensure resiliency in the supply chain for the future,” she noted.

Kuhn suggested a variety of project ideas that could be funded by the federal grant money, including:

• Capacity building for the WMFPA regional network and supply chain logistics.

• Technical assistance and training in new technologies addressing current needs of the food industry related to reducing food waste in landfills, sustainable packaging, energy-efficient build-outs and minimally processed foods.

• Workforce development efforts to fill labor and skills gaps in agricultural production and food manufacturing through partnerships with MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology, local community colleges and state workforce development agencies. 

• Increasing programming opportunities for the FARM center. 

• A mobile food processing unit and equipment. 

• A regional analysis of water infrastructure, including drinking water and wastewater treatment capacity to serve the food sector and potential construction projects related to capacity needs.


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