DOWN ON THE FARM
To support the growth of the food processing sector, the WMFPA in conjunction with the Community Foundation for Muskegon County (CFMC) and Muskegon Community College put in motion plans to develop the FARM (Food, Agriculture, Research, Manufacturing Center) incubator/accelerator and business development center targeted at stage one or two entrepreneurial companies or existing mature ones that are looking for an offsite location for test manufacturing of new products. A State of Michigan infrastructure grant for over $2million that was awarded in 2019 made it possible to take the vision from a plan to reality.
An incubator/accelerator is seen as integral for growing the food processing sector in the region as an entrepreneurial building block. FARM is a collective effort to bring venture capital funds to new entrepreneurs in the West Michigan region; link college students (both MSU and MCC) together with entrepreneurs, and a one-stop shop of resources for entrepreneurs to take new innovations and technologies to commercialization. West Michigan is already home to several early-stage kitchen incubators such as Kitchen 242 in Muskegon and the Starting Block in Hart. With the completion of FARM, this enables successful entrepreneurs to move from either of these early-stage locations or from anywhere else to take the next step in growing their business to full commercialization. FARM will offer food-grade industrial space with individual suites with flexible lease and space options.
The facility includes 8,000 square feet of flexible manufacturing space for commercial grade fruit and vegetable processing. It complies with all US Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration requirements. Among the proposed facility's features are loading docks, refrigeration/freezers, energy efficient, and waste and water handling. Expected tenants will furnish their specific processing equipment. They will rotate as they grow and move to their own facility.
Located on the campus of Muskegon Community College with its affiliation with Michigan State University’s (MSU) food processing certificate and degree programs will ensure the facility will contribute to research, education, and economic development of the West Michigan Region. It will also have space for the MSU Mobile Processing Lab. The lab mirrors what students will see in the industry once they graduate, but at a smaller scale. The trailer lab was built to demonstrate the needs for food grade processing, as well as, meeting the demands of the curriculum for the certificate program. The lab will also be used to introduce high school students to food processing as a potential career.
FARM’s development and construction was able to begin in 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic. In fact, had the facility already been in operation, WMFPA technical experts believe it would be deemed essential infrastructure for COVID response. The WMFPA team was able to develop a plan to access pre-blend sanitizer in large volume and repackage into 16 oz. containers. While FARM was not completed at the time, discussions were completed with a food processing facility in another county to do this work, but it’s a function we can assume if needed in 2021 with the FARM as an operational facility.
Actual construction began in June 2020 led by John Grace Construction Company. Using local subcontractors and sourced materials to the extent possible, the facility was completed and ready for operation in early 2021. WMFPA began the search for a facility manager and entered into discussions with potential tenants. Funding was also secured for equipping the facility.