Last year proved busy at Urbana, Ohio-based Michael Farms Inc., and so far, 2009 is shaping up to be another one, with several new products and projects already completed or in the works, said Todd Michael, vice president.

The company has added a 40,000-square-foot steel building, which features all-stainless-steel sweet corn and cabbage lines, Michael said.

The company also added 20 full-time employees to handle the higher workload, Michael said.

Among those was a full-time food safety specialist, Cecilia Hollard, a first for the company — and, Michael said, a big improvement over the company’s old method of monitoring food safety.

“We had half a dozen people trying to do this piece of it or that,” he said.

Two main motivations lie behind the company’s decision to build the facility, he said.

“It was part food safety, part keeping the focus on servicing our customers long-term,” Michael said.

The new sweet corn line will enable Michael Farms to cool product more efficiently and to maintain a clean, safe working environment, Michael said.

“In the past, we would cool it in field wagons, then slush-ice it,” he said.

With a newly designed sweet corn cooler in the new facility, the company can now cool corn without the use of ice, which helps prevent contamination and keeps the floors of Michael Farms and those of its customers free of ice and water, Michael said.

“It helps with the integrity of the containers and the mess on docks,” he said.

With more and more companies in the produce industry using reusable plastic containers, it’s more important than ever to pack product that isn’t dripping because of being packed in ice, Michael said.

In the new cooler, newly picked corn can get down to 35 degrees in about 1 ½ hours, he said.

Michael Farms’ new corn line also will increase capacity, allowing the company to pack more corn in a shorter amount of time, Michael said.

Packing also should be more efficient on the company’s new cabbage line, he said.

Also in 2009, Michael Farms expects a strong sophomore performance for a potato repack venture it launched with other companies in 2008, Michael said.

In September, Michael Farms and four other companies opened the packing facility in southern Michigan with the idea of distributing potatoes year-round.

“It’s going real well,” Michael said. “We moved a lot more volume than we had planned on.”

At more than 100,00 square feet, the facility, near White Pigeon, Mich., has a rail siding and six truck docks, three train docks and four storage facilities.

Michael Farms’ partners in the venture include potato growers from Michigan, Washington and Pennsylvania.

The facility offers a full-range of size and packaging options for russets, whites, reds and yellows, Michael said.

Two electronic photo graders at the plant help guarantee top quality, Michael said.

“There isn’t any market we can’t go into without great results,” he said.
Product typically ships in a 300-mile radius from the facility, Michael said.

In addition to the success at the Michigan facility, Michael Farms also is now packing spuds year-round at its Ohio headquarters, a practice that benefits a specific type of customer, Michael said.

“We’re able to better serve smaller customers that aren’t taking a full truckload,” he said.

Michael Farms’ potato bags are being updated for this year’s shipping season, Michael said. The company will pack its full line with redesigned packaging under its Heartland brand, he said.

By late June, the new bags should be delivered and ready for packing.

Sherri Terry, an industry consultant and former vice president of marketing for Cincinnati-based Chiquita, was hired to spearhead the packaging redesign, Michael said.

Terry convened consumer focus groups to find out what people wanted in a potato bag.