Aug 8, 2019Van Doren Sales, Compac open Michigan facility
Fruit packing equipment company Van Doren Sales and its partner Compac Tomra have a heavy concentration in the Pacific Northwest, but they recently opened a new facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The two companies held a ribbon-cutting and an open house event Aug. 7, with demonstrations of the equipment and featured speakers.
Van Doren Sales manufactures automatic container and fruit-handling equipment. Its other locations are Wenatchee, Yakima, and Kelowna, British Columbia.
Owner Bret Pittsinger said the company was started by his grandfather in 1946.
“It was founded on, quality pays and service what you sell,” he said at the beginning of the event. “We’ve been focused on the Pacific Northwest, but another thing we say is, ‘Stay humble, hungry, smart. We want to be humble when we come out to your neck of the woods. We’ve got a lot to learn. You do things a certain way. In the Pacific Northwest, we do things a certain way. We felt we bring a lot to the table with our alliance, but we’re here to listen and learn and take care of you guys. We’re here for the long run. We’ve been doing this thing for 70 years. We want to continue to invest and grow with Compac.”
Joe Clemens, operations manager for Compac, said the automatic sorter company has a significant presence in the East, which started “in a little corner of the Riveridge packing shed” before graduating to office space, events for apple growers and finally the new facility.
Christopher Simard, vice president of sales North America at Compac, said the company has 25-30 staff in the east, including trainers, managers and engineers.
“This is just the start,” Simard said. “This is just a really strong foundation to make sure you and your equipment, your packhouses, get the most out of your investments.”
Ag labor talk
The event included talks by Chalmers Carr, of Titan Farms, Russ Tavlan of Moonlight packing, and Jim Bair of US Apple.
Carr spoke about the benefits that came with a new packing line at his own farm in South Carolina, which is focused on growing peaches. A new packing line and automatic sorter reduced its staff from 110 to 46 people, and increased its rate from 2,400 boxes an hour to 3,500 boxes an hour. Labor costs are down from $0.60 to $0.22 per box.
Carr is also involved in the agriculture labor advocacy group USA Farmers, a founding member of the Ag Workforce Coalition, and he spoke at length about those efforts to influence agricultural labor reform.
From 2014-2018, Michigan has increased its workers certified through the H-2A agricultural work visa program by 540% – from just over 1,000 to more than 8,000, Carr said, citing labor statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“You have the fastest H-2A growth rate in the country.” He said the growth was fueled by “sheer desperation” as growers look for seasonal workers who are legally employable.
Many growers would like to see the H-2A program replaced or made less difficult, he said. Carr was upbeat concerning some of the players in Washington, D.C., including Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who he said was working hard.
But Carr said significant labor reform beneficial to growers is unlikely in the next two years. Lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on ag labor reform in 2007, 2013 and 2018 when proposed legislation failed to attract enough votes.
In January 2019, Democratic representatives from California Zoe Lofgren and Dianne Feinstein introduced the Agricultural Worker Program Act. While the legislation was endorsed by the United Farm Workers Union, Carr said many national farmer groups experienced in the H-2A program were not invited to negotiations with Lofgren’s office as the labor attorney worked on the bill.
“I think we’re too far apart,” Carr said. “I just don’t think this is coming together.”