$26 million Welch Foods expansion creating up to 57 jobs in Southwest Michigan's Van Buren County

Figuratively speaking, champagne — well, grape juice —  was flowing in Southwest Michigan last week with the announcement that Welch Foods is expanding its operations in the village of Lawton, where it will create up to 57 jobs for Michigan workers. 

A joint announcement by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation says the global manufacturer of jams, jellies, and beverages is investing more than $26.2 million, supported by $588,725 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds awarded to Van Buren County. 

Michigan was chosen for the project over competing sites in several other states. 
 
Juice grapes are grown in three areas of the United States, and by volume Michigan is only surpassed by New York and Washington, says MSU Extension’s Michael Reinke, Michigan State University’s advisor to the Michigan Grape Society.
  
The announcement of an expansion by Welch's in Lawton is seen as an economic win for Van Buren County and for the entire state. But the quality of the grapes grown here is excellent, and the growers are knowledgeable with years of experience, he adds.
 
“This area produces some beautiful flavors and we just have some good growers that have been doing it for a long time,” Reinke says. “The grape production here is reliable.”
  
Whitmer says Michigan’s business climate and highly skilled workforce provide an environment where businesses like Welch Foods can grow and thrive, “creating good-paying jobs for Michiganders.
 
“We’re pleased that this iconic brand has chosen to expand in Michigan, helping to continue to grow our state’s vital agribusiness industry,” Whitmer says. “With the help of companies like Welch Foods, we can build back our state’s economy stronger than ever.”  
 
Welch Foods Inc. has produced grape juices, jams, and jellies since 1869 and has had operations in Michigan since 1919. The company is experiencing increasing demand for single-serve beverages, and after reviewing its options for potential sites in different states, made the decision to locate its new bottling line at its facility in Lawton.
 
At least 30 of the 57 new jobs will be held by low-to-moderate-income individuals in order to meet national Community Development Block Grant objectives. The block grant funds will assist with the acquisition of machinery and equipment needed for the expansion.  
 
“Welch’s is pleased that our close partnership with UFCW Local 825 has enabled us to commit to this investment, which will support our growth, continue to bring living-wage jobs to the community, and help us make Welch’s an employer of choice in Van Buren County,” says Welch Foods Inc. Cooperative Chief Supply Chain Officer Merrell Bennett.
 
“The State of Michigan is a great place to grow, and we are grateful for the efforts of state and local officials that are helping us make this project a reality,”  Bennett says.
 
The project is expected to have a long-term impact in this rural area.
 
“The village of Lawton is excited by Welch's decision to expand in our community,” said Lawton Village Manager Lisa Imus. “We look forward to the new job opportunities and growth that this investment will bring to our residents and neighbors.” 
 
It also reflects the company’s long-term commitment to the area and to the state of Michigan, according to the governor’s office.
 
The project also will revitalize underutilized property into food-grade production space that will allow for future growth. The investment is also important for continued relationships with Michigan growers and suppliers and to strengthen the regionally significant agribusiness industry. 

Quentin Messer, Jr., CEO of the MEDC and president and chair of the Michigan Strategic Fund calls the project “an economic win for Van Buren County and for the entire state and a continued vote of confidence in our state and in our agricultural and manufacturing workforce.
  
“We’re proud to join our local partners as we celebrate Welch’s expansion in Michigan,” Messer says, “and look forward to continuing to work together to grow and add jobs for Michigan residents.” 
  
“We’re thankful for our partners at the village of Lawton, Van Buren County and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation who made securing this grant for Welch Foods Cooperative possible,” said Market Van Buren Executive Director Zach Morris. 
 
Van Buren County will also contribute staff time and resources in support of the project. For information on careers with Welch Foods, visit here.
 
Amy Birk, enologist at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor and president of the Michigan Grape Society, says she is hopeful that the expansion and reinvestment in the juice industry would also benefit grape growers.
 
“Creating new jobs is fantastic,” Birk says. “I’d like to see more money  — and more contracts — to growers,” increasing Michigan production juice grape tonnage demands.

 

Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.