Oct 31, 2013
Elite Apple moves partners’ product out the door

New packing, processing and marketing facilities are being unveiled this fall to handle the burgeoning output of the Michigan apple industry.

Elite Apple, a joint effort among seven Michigan grower-shippers, opened its 60,000-square-foot plant near Sparta, Mich., on Aug. 15 – in time to usher in a large fall crop, and with the prospect of future expansion to handle more business in coming seasons.

Heeren Bros., a produce distributor based in Grand Rapids, Mich., was set to debut a $22 million packing and distribution facility in Comstock Park as part of a 178,000-square-foot operation that will become the focal point for Heeren’s corporate offices and Ridgeking Apple’s packing services.

Both of the new facilities fall under the marketing arm of All Fresh GPS, which was launched in 2011 by Ridgeking, Michigan Fresh Marketing and Applewood Orchards, one of the partners launching Elite Apple.

Ken Hubert is one of the grower partners involved in Elite Apple, which he originally conceived with other growers in “The Ridge” area more than five years ago, with the intent of specifically handling SweeTango, a highly touted new variety. That concept fizzled before the remaining partners forged ahead with the development for the packing facility that was already in hand.

“We’re certainly hoping to do about a million bushels this year,” Hubert said as the new packing lines hummed in the background. “The crop is large and it’s going to be that way for some time now. A lot of young fruit is being planted in this area. This place, I think, is needed for the farmers that are involved in it, plus everybody else. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The need for more apple-packing facilities in the area had been evident for some time, Hubert said. Newer technology, including sorting machines that can scan apples and detect defects on the outside and inside of the fruit, and enhanced packaging capabilities for fresh apple applications, including polybags or molded display packs for retailers, are key features of the plant.

“That’s very important, because everybody wants a lot more done with the fruit today than they did in the past,” Hubert said. “Our wax job, everything we’re doing, has to be done better than it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago is not acceptable today.

“We’re hoping to do a lot of the new varieties, new strains,” Hubert said of the anticipated product mix. “We’re doing SweeTango and Honeycrisp – two of our big ones – with hopefully new ones coming up shortly in the future. Everybody involved here is going to be planting some new stuff. These are all very aggressive farmers. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have stuck our neck out this far to do what we did.”

He said Elite Apple only works with its nearby grower partners – most of whom are within a five-mile radius – to process product through the plant, with only a “limited” use of apples coming from outside of the investment group’s farms.

The plant is designed to move product efficiently through the building and out the door for shipment to customers. Picked apples are delivered by truck to one end of the plant, where storage is limited. The operation takes advantage of the growers already having enough storage on their own farms, so duplicating that space in the plant isn’t necessary.

A large mezzanine area contains the boxing operations, employee restroom and break room facilities.

Plant manager Dan Debski said the production process works best when apples that are on hand each day are moved through the packing and shipping process in a timely fashion.

After the apples are offloaded, they are moved to a climate-controlled room to be washed and waxed. They then go through a drying process before manual inspection and run through scanning machines to sort defects and size. The finished packages are then ready for shipment.

“We have a compact sorter, an Envision 9000, internal sorter and detector, 72 bagger heads for poly, and each lane has check ware with a drying tunnel,” Debski explained. “Each bag that comes across the line is weighed for the customer. It’s state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line equipment to produce better packs for the customer and better return for the farmer when we get good product out the door.”

The line is set up to run 100 percent tray packs or bags in the facility.

“We’ve got more tray and bagging capability than most people do,” Hubert said.

The plant is air-conditioned, with heating capability in the colder months. The operators plan to keep the facility going for eight to 10 months of the year, based on the size of the crop.

The biggest obstacle to keeping the system humming in the initial stages was a shortage of available labor to extend to two full shifts of operation.

“At this point, we’re running 15 to 16 hours a day” with staggered start times, Debski said. “We are starting to implement a second shift that starts about 3:30, but we are short-handed right now. The first-shifters are stepping up and hanging in there. We’re working seven days a week trying to keep up on the orders.”

In early October, the plant had 57 employees on the day shift, with another 25 working in a rotation into the evenings.

Scott Swindeman of Applewood Land Co., based in Deerfield, Mich., is one of the grower partners in the project and is part of the sales and marketing effort of All Fresh GPS, along with Tom Curtis. According to a press release, All Fresh GPS represents more than 75 family owned grower operations that make up more than 10,000 acres of the Michigan apple industry.

Grower and partner Patrick Goodfellow said Swindeman’s involvement shows a commitment to the project on his part.

“Having a vested interest in the packing shed, he’s going to make sure that not only does he make out on the sales but he needs this thing to pay the bills, too,” said Goodfellow. “It’s important to have a sales organization that’s involved in-house like that.”

In addition to Swindeman/Applewood Orchards, Goodfellow and Ken Hubert, other grower partners in Elite Apple include Rodney Kober, Rob Steffens, Rich Kent and Victor Hubert.

“We have some young farmers involved in this to carry it on,” Ken Hubert said. “There are all young people managing it and running it, so they should be able to grow with us. That’s our intentions.”

The partners’ biggest benefit, Hubert said, is the ability to easily expand the facility as future demand dictates, with much of the infrastructure, including cooling systems, driveway and parking facilities, already set up for such a move.

“We could easily double the size of our building and more. It’s designed to do that,” he said.

In the meantime, Goodfellow said, all involved are working to get the inevitable kinks ironed out of the operation.

“We’ve got 90 new people in a brand new facility, so it’s taken a lot of training and experience to get everything going,” he said. “It’s all new to everybody. It’s complex, with so many steps.”

Gary Pullano

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