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Ag task force tours area


Legislators impressed with Imlay area's boost to state's economy


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Employees harvest romaine lettuce from Van Dyk’s muck fields in Imlay City on Monday, something ag task force members, including state representatives, were able to watch. photo by Maria Brown.

August 26, 2009
TRI-CITY AREA — Agriculture in Lapeer County is diverse—that was most evident when state legislators with an Ag Task Force committee toured area farms on Monday.

Agriculture in Lapeer County is also a major player in the local economy and the entire industry in Michigan—that's something farmers told the men and women from Lansing they hope to see get even stronger in the coming years.

The task force and other guests visited seven locations on Monday afternoon and the day culminated with a public hearing at the Lapeer County Ed-Tech Center in Attica on Monday night.

"It's important to educate the legislators on what it's really like out here on our farms, to see how many people we employ and the money that is pumped into the economy," said Lapeer County's 82nd District Representative and Lum-area farmer Kevin Daley, who played host to the group which included representatives Cindy Denby of Livingston County and Ken Kurtz of Branch County.

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The goal of the task force was to seek input from farmers and others in the field on how best to improve Michigan's second largest industry.

In the muck fields of Imlay City, the group watched as Van Dyk Farms employees clad in hair nets and rubber gloves harvested romaine lettuce which is immediately boxed on site.

"Our packing house is actually the field, " Doug Van Dyk said.

Doug, brother Dennis and brother-in-law Rob Sommer oversee the operations.

Within an hour of harvest the lettuce has to be cooled and is ready to be shipped to the Eastern Market in Detroit, wholesale distributors and processors. Their head and leaf lettuces are on store shelves the day after they are harvested from the fields, Sommer said.

The tour group was interested to learn about Van Dyk's 13 miles of high-wire fencing to keep wildlife out of their fields for food safety reasons.

Van Dyk said their hand has been forced to implement precautions including field testing since growers in California dealt with recent ecoli outbreaks, not due to any scares of their own.

Van Dyk said research done by the Michigan State University Extension is so valuable to their industry especially when it comes to things like crop rotation and disease. Labor is also a challenge.

The stop at Pinnacle Foods in Imlay City included a production floor tour where they saw cucumbers transformed into Vlasic's most popular product, dill spears.

Participants were doubly impressed when they learned the impact the Imlay City plant has on Michigan's economy alone.

Pinnacle Foods spends $13 million a year purchasing 1.2 million bushels of Michigan grown produce from places like Pinconning, Decatur and Ithaca. That translates into about 25 percent of all the produce they purchase domestically. They employ 650 people, including 350 seasonal employees. Their payroll totals about $14 million a year. With a $6.5 million expansion on the horizon things are looking good for the company.

"We feel very fortunate to be in this business in this state," Brad Stahlecker of Pinnacle said.

Members of the tour group were especially attentive when Stahlecker said that Pinnacle's corporate owner, the Blackstone Group, was looking to add five new businesses to their portfolio, and was scoping out 'business-friendly' states.

"Processing is such a large part of our ag economy. We need those partners to be successful in agriculture," Lapeer County MSU Extension Director Phil Kaatz said, who helped organize the tour stops.

The tour began at Daley's dairy heifer raising operation which he operates with his son Thomas. From there the group learned about the state's sugar industry at the David Brusie Farms in North Branch and talked about animal care and related issues at the Chris Howland dairy heifer farm in Burlington Twp.

Gary and David Muxlow of Marlette shared their farm history and participation in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program. They currently raise 800 head of beef cattle.

FFA advisor and agriscience teacher Tammy Hyatt had a chance to show off the facilities at the Ed Tech center briefly before the hearing.

As for the hearing, Daley said his fellow representatives were impressed at the willingness of attendees to share their thoughts.

"A couple of them said 'you've got a very vocal group over here,'" Daley said following the hearing.

Speakers addressed topics such as economic hardships in the harness racing industry, the state's electronic tagging of cattle, legislation on animal care standards, the role of state government agencies, agriculture education for youth, county drainage problems, loss of conservation district funding, various problems with guest worker rules and many more.

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