Sep 9, 2019
After fire, Riveridge expands cider production facility

On July 3, 2018, a new cider production facility of Riveridge Produce Marketing in West Michigan burned down.

Almost immediately, staff and leadership made plans for a stopgap measure to meet orders for the coming season while rebuilding for the following year.

And more than 12 months later, in early September 2019, about 200 growers, clients and colleagues drove to the site near Grant, Michigan, for the opening of a larger new facility.

The new cider production facility, as seen from the road. Photos: Stephen Kloosterman

At 40,000 square feet, it’s more than twice the size of the building that burned. And Riveridge said it will be second-largest in the country by volume of production – second only to the Mayer Bros of West Seneca, New York.

But enough about the building.

“This isn’t about buildings and equipment. It’s about people,” Riveridge President Don Armock said at the Sept. 6 opening.  “Due to the can-do attitude of some people, (we) managed to save the business.”

The Dietrich family, owners of Ridgeview Orchards, quickly offered up their asparagus packing shed for lease as a temporary cider-processing facility.

“We went in and cut holes in the walls, cut holes in the floors and so forth – and they literally put up with us,” Armock said.

A key Riveridge employee early on figured out how to get the operation up and running again in six weeks’ time. Armock said it was an example of the attitude of the employees.

Don Armock
Don Armock

“That’s what I’m talking about when I say a can-do attitude,” Armock said. “They’ve got their eye on the goal. They know what we’re trying to accomplish, and they just go and flat-out get it done.”

Co-packing companies and out-of-state production helped the Riveridge meet and even substantially grow its business during 2018, and the company broke ground on the new facility in February 2019.

Armock thanked financiers, the insurance company, the township government and growers who supported the business through the transition.

An asset for Michigan growers

A load of apples in a hopper at the Riveridge cider production facility near Grant, Michigan.

Visitors and colleagues hailed the facility as an asset for west Michigan agriculture.

Riveridge itself is the biggest player in the Michigan apple industry – Armock has said roughly half of all apples produced in Michigan this season will be sold by Riveridge. The Riveridge Land Co. and a packing company make the operation fully integrated into apples, and the company is also involved in asparagus, sweet cherries and apples.

“Their presence here in Newaygo County is not only providing direct employment to a few dozen people, but also supporting the continuing success of the blooming agriculture industry that we have here in Newagyo County,” said Julie Burrell, business development coordinator for the Right Place, a Grand Rapids-based economic development group.

The cider production facility represents an outlet for growers’ apples that fall short of the mark for being sold as fresh. Armock said few Michigan growers strictly grow processing varieties anymore.

He said the new facility, which had been up and running for less than a month, can process more than 5,000 bins a week – about 60 truckloads a week. Roughly three out of four apples end up as cider; others become an apple pomace for feeding dairy cows or compost for fertilizer.

“When we’re in full production, we’ll make 40-50,000 gallons a day,” Armock said. When the season hits full swing, he anticipated running 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as long as possible, at least until Christmas. A new cider flavor for 2019 is salty caramel, and the operation will also start bottling in smaller 16-ounce bottles for the first time, in addition to the gallon and half-gallon sizes.

“This year, we’ll sell our cider products into 48 states,” Armock said. “We’ve got a pretty substantial amount of business in the western U.S. this season.”

Pat Chase, who sells apple byproducts for Jack Brown Produce, said the new facility expands markets for growers in west Michigan.

“We start out the season or even the winter before, pruning the trees, getting ready for the next season,” said Chase, who also grows a few apples with his brother. “We’re all striving to grow fresh-market quality apples. We want to raise apples that are going to end up at Meijer, Walmart, Aldi or Spartan Stores. That’s the target. The reality is we grow byproduct that doesn’t make it to those channels. Having an asset like this is really important to growers in the state of Michigan, particularly in the west-central area.”

– Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor

Above, Riveridge President Don Armock cuts the ribbon on a new cider production plant near Grant, Michigan. 

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