Growers, community come together to build fruit research station in west central Michigan

What now serves as a staple to the agricultural community of west central Michigan was nothing more than a conversation four years ago. 

In 2018, a small group of fruit and vegetable growers gathered to discuss a proposal by Andy Riley, a grower at Riley Orchards in Mears. The fifth-generation-family farm grows asparagus, tart cherries, sweet cherries, peaches and apples. 

Riley believed the agricultural community of the region -- Oceana, Mason and Newaygo counties -- could benefit from its own farm-related research center. 

Joining him in the conversation were: Bob Underwood, the visionary for Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station in Leelanau County, outside Traverse City; Phil Korson, former director of the Cherry Marketing Institute; grower Mike VanAgtmae, who farms tart cherries and asparagus; and grower Mark Riley, Andy Riley’s father.

Such a research facility, Riley contended, would help the region’s many tree fruit growers, who farm in unique soils and face different weather conditions than other parts of the state. The soils are much sandier and the microclimate can make for harsher weather conditions due to the proximity and position of Lake Michigan. 

The growers planned steps forward and created the West Central Michigan Horticultural Research, Inc., a non-profit organization to develop the research center to support agricultural operations in Oceana, Mason and Newaygo counties. 

“The goal (summed up in a nutshell) would be that we exist to solve growers' problems, whatever they might be,” said Riley, who is president of the organization. “Also to educate our growers and introduce new tools and newer and better ways of doing things to be more productive.”

A $1.5 million fund-raising campaign began and succeeded with countless donations from individuals and various organizations, including the Community Foundation of Oceana County, the Fremont Foundation and the Oceana County Road Commission. Other donors included Greenstone Farm Credit, Michigan Apple Committee, the Michigan Tree Fruit Commission, the Michigan State Horticultural Society and Materne North America Corp., a local company that specializes in squeezable food pouches, called GoGo squeeZ.

In August 2021, the West Michigan Research Station opened in Hart. 

There are more than 22 agriculture research projects in progress at the center, overseen by experts from Michigan State University, a partner in the research facility, says Richard Raffaelli, a board member of the West Central Michigan Horticultural Research Inc. Raffaelli wears many hats -- he’s also project manager for the station, COO of Peterson Farms and a supervisor for Shelby Township, Oceana County. 

The need for a research station specific to the region was necessary. The soils are sandier than the Fruit Ridge area in Sparta, and the area is at a higher latitude than fruit and vegetable growers in southeastern Michigan. The sandier soils are good for growing asparagus and have been effective in avoiding bitter pit in Honeycrisp.

In addition, the closest research station is located about 120 miles from Hart.

“This area needs its own research station. We are very diverse. We are different from the Ridge and we are different from up north. I just really wanted to be a part of it.” said Jason Fleming, president of J & H Fleming Farm Inc. and a member of the Defenders Club, a group of donors to the research center.  

West central Michigan is also one of the largest fruit-growing regions in Michigan, home to Peterson Farms, which grows apples, peaches, cherries and other fruit. Peterson Farms is one of the largest fruit processors in the U.S and is the largest employer in Oceana County.

“Agriculture is the largest economic driver in our region.” Raffaelli said, “We need to fuel that generational economy by researching fruits and vegetables that the next several generations of farmers can use.”

The West Michigan Research Station and Farm sits on 68 acres of farmland, adjoining the north side of the Michigan Asparagus Research Farm. 

The 8,424-square-foot main building features training and conference rooms, a laboratory and a fabrication facility. Outside, there are gardens, trails, a tractor pavilion, a gazebo and an outdoor meeting space. 

The research station will be used to study the growing of fruits and vegetables but also agriculture practices that impact farmers and the environment in a positive manner. Variety and rootstock trials are one of the objectives of research. 

Michigan State University uses the facilities for Ag-Bio studies. 

Since its opening, the West Michigan Research Station and Farms has served the community as a gathering spot. The facility was used for court hearings during the pandemic and has been a wedding venue as well. Renting out the facility provides incremental revenue.

The research station hosts summer camps for middle and high school students interested in agriculture.

“It’s an excellent project that serves not only our agricultural sector but also nonprofits and community groups that might want to make use of this building.” said Tammy Carey, CEO of the Community Foundation of Oceana County. 

The Community Foundation of Oceana County was a large supporter for the development of the West Michigan Research Station and Farm. The organization gave grants as well as assisted the project by connecting prospective donors. 

“Early on I knew it was something we needed to support because of the impact it could have and the importance of that project,” she said. “We want to be connected to impactful projects that move our county forward and benefit new sectors.”

Riley says that the impact the research station has made at the moment is providing a space for growers to meet and gather information, but the broad impact is going to be visible in the future out of all that yields from the research projects.  

“I knew this was a project that could put Oceana county on the map,” Carey said. “It also was a project that I think would encourage other really impactful projects to happen and it has. It made our county feel stronger in what we can accomplish together.” 

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