Fruit loss has ripple effect

Published 6:07pm Wednesday, May 23, 2012

WATERVLIET — Coloma Frozen Foods is a $25 million-a-year company that pulls what it processes from across Michigan, including the Traverse City cherry industry, which has been staggered by setbacks for three years.

“What will a third short crop do to the cherry industry in our largest growing area? Will Traverse City survive or will we see dramatic reductions in potential capacity? We’ll run for only a portion of the year this year at reduced volume and likely lay off 60 to 75 hourly workers and reduce the hours of 20 to 30 more,” Brad Wendzel  said Wednesday.

That means a payroll reduction ranging from $800,000 to $1 million, compounded by a reduction in raw product purchased from local west Michigan growers estimated at $6 million.

And that’s just the beginning of the cascading ripple effect from savoring two weeks of summer in March.

Payments to plastic, chemical and corrugated suppliers could wither by another $1.3 million. Revenue paid for freezer and storage facilities is seen sliding by $700,000. Even a seemingly minor item such as lab supplies carries a $100,000 tab. Shop supplies are another $100,000 item. Power and natural gas, $300,000 to $500,000.

“The reduction going back into the local economy is $9.5 million,” Wendzel said. “That’s a big change for a company our size. More potentially damaging is the loss of customers forced to go either elsewhere or worse, find alternative products to replace cherries and apples this year. We can’t know if manufacturers, food service and other programs will come back, what it might cost us later to buy our way back into those markets and shelf space we’re going to lose”

Wendzel wondered what will happen to the seasonal migrant labor supply, “which is already jeopardized by haphazard, ineffectual federal policy. The commissions, departments and branches can’t even present us as employers or the employees with a unified policy. We faced shortages last year to harvest our crops. Given the existing climate and the shortage this year, will we even be able to get people back up here to harvest next year?

“We’re on dangerous ground looking to our government for help to survive. FDA personnel show up to our plants in military uniforms for routine inspections, Department of Justice attorneys threaten my employees with jail time for telling them simple truths that don’t fit with the Beltway vision of the world and USDA and HHS seem content to let the hysterical media determine what food safety policy should be. Even Congress, in my humble opinion, abdicated its responsibility, giving the Health and Human Services Secretary carte blanche authority to write food safety policies. We would appreciate assistance, but we can’t afford strings attached or rules and policies dictated by people with limited or no agricultural experience or expertise who live in cities, concrete, glass and crime places of squalor. We need a government to protect our liberties — not take them away in the name of safety. We need a helping hand, but not in our pocket holding a leash or around our necks.”

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