Sep 24, 2021
West Central Michigan’s new research station open

Camaraderie and thankfulness seemed to radiate from apple growers in West Central Michigan on Aug. 5 as they dedicated a newly built tree fruit research station funded with a sizable private investment in the nonprofit effort.

A large meeting room outside Hart, Michigan, was filled to the brim for the dedication event, which included tours of the buildings and 68-acre property. The property adjoins the north side of the Michigan Asparagus Research Farm in Oceana County.

Formally called the Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch Earl and Linda Peterson West Central Michigan Research and Extensions Center, the new location serves Oceana, Mason and Newaygo counties. It was built at a cost of roughly $1.5 million through the nonprofit West Central Michigan Horticultural Research Inc. MSU Extension will provide multiple research platforms specific to the microclimate in West Central Michigan.

Businesses, individuals and other vested parties largely made the project possible through donations. The station is situated on farmland with the capability to study peaches, pears and Montmorency tart cherries. The station is planned to expand to sweet cherries and apples as soon as 2022. The main building includes an event space, a smaller meeting space, laboratory area and produce storage facility donated by Sparta’s Storage Control Systems. Other buildings on the space include a shed for antique tractors, separate equipment shed, a chemical storage facility, a gazebo and a “bunkhouse” for visitors.

Running down a dream

Earl Peterson, the fruit grower and food processor for whom, with his wife Linda, the facility is named, spoke briefly about the need for the effort.

“I grew up on several farms in Mason County and learned the value of hard work from my father,” he said. “During the 1970s through the early 2000s, I was an active participant in industry causes and oftentimes wondered why we here in West Central Michigan couldn’t have a research facility for ourselves. There were numerous discussions about the issue but there was no driving force to get it done. The West Michigan Research Station wouldn’t be a reality today without the board. They decided they were going to accomplish the task.”

Earl and Linda Peterson cut the ribbon at the new research station that bears their name. With them are Michigan State University’s Doug Buhler, left, and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Gary McDowell. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman

The board members for the group include Chris Alpers, Doug Buhler, Caleb Coulter, Gerrit Herrygers, Richard Raffaelli, David Rennhack, Andy Riley, Mike Van Agtemael and Nichole Wilcox. But originally, it was just a few fruit growers with a dream.

“A lot of the other fruit-growing areas had research facilities for MSU,” Herrygers said. “This area had not, and at that time things were coming together.”

The inclusion of Peterson Farms and other businesses in the three-county area ended up bringing a lot more expertise. The group had to start a nonprofit organization and draw up a long-term plan before earning a grant.

“A lot of things had to happen that four or five fruit growers would have never thought had to happen to get to this level,” Herrygers said. Without the others, “We would have had a tin shed and a 40-acre piece. We’d plant trees, I guess, we’re good at that, but what would we do beyond that?”

The project encountered some difficulty in 2020 when the group’s assigned MSU researcher took a new job and left the area during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It could have taken the wind out of our sails, but we didn’t let it. Andy Riley, John Bakker and I sat in a room and said, ‘Listen, we’re going to do something with the farm this season no matter what. We’re going to have some research done on this trial.’ And we did.”

A new researcher, Emily Lavely, has been identified to take over the work, and a research field day is planned for Oct. 19 at 1:30 p.m.

Gathering support

Earl Peterson said that his children, Aaron Peterson (Peterson Farms Inc. president and CEO) and Sarah Schlukebir (chief sales and marketing officer), at some point decided to support the effort with the company personnel and “the full resources of the company.” Company staff, in turn, spent their own time on the project, he said. Peterson Farms’ COO Richard Raffaelli, and employee Patricia Parsons were honored with plaques at the event.

A long list of other companies and individuals supported the project. Major donors including Michigan State Horticultural Society, Michigan Tree Fruit

Commission, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan Asparagus Research Inc., GoGo Squeez packaging company and GreenStone Farm Credit Services are honored with plaques on the outside of the building, while dozens of other individuals and companies are also listed in the entryway to the main building.

Speakers at the event, including MSU’s Doug Buhler and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Director Gary McDowell, thanked many people for their efforts. Andy Riley, board president of the Earl and Linda Peterson Research Center, thanked God, who he saw as having a hand in the project’s success, and his wife, for putting up with him being away from home during his work on the center.

Riley hopes the research center can not only keep the growers at the cutting edge of growing techniques but also be a community center. A coach at a local school, he often preaches the phrase, “Don’t Matter, Get Better” or DMGB, to his team. He thinks the same message applies to growers.

“As growers, when we look to the future, we need to get better,” he said. “We need to be better growers. We need to be better community people. We need to get better.”

— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor




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