Farmers worry about fate of fruit processor

TRAVERSE CITY – The trouble with fruit processor/finisher Williamsburg Receiving and Storage (WRS) doesn't stop with the State's pending odor and groundwater pollution lawsuit.

Sweet cherry farmers worry that if an area environmental group and WRS neighbors successfully intervene in the State's suit and sue, WRS could go out of business, leaving 100 or so area farmers with few options left.

WRS is one of three "finishers" in the United States that takes the sweet cherries to the retail market in the form of bulk maraschino cherries. It also acts as one of four area processors, buying sweets, shipping them south as an unfinished product for wider distribution.

Should this area lose its only finishing plant-a 30-acre operation that takes in some 12 million pounds of cherries each year from over 100 different farmers-some say the region's sweet cherry growing community would be devastated.

The three other processing plants in the area-Leelanau Fruit in Suttons Bay, Great Lakes Packing in Kewadin, and Gray and Co. in Hart-would likely take over the excess, but some farmers worry about price increases and capacity problems.

John Gallagher, a lifelong farmer who has sent his cherries to Gray and Co. for years, thinks having competition among the four processors is essential.

"If my neighbors go to my processor and he gets his pits full, then we have a backup situation," he said. "If we come up with a big crop, we'll be at their whim and pleasure price-wise. They'll give us whatever they want."

Don Gregory, who owns Cherry Bay Orchards in Suttons Bay, echoes Gallagher's sentiments.

"Historically, he's (WRS) used a large volume of northern Michigan cherries and has been a leader in pricing," said Gregory, who harvests between two to three million pounds of briners, or light sweets, each year. "He's one of the few lifelines we have for sweet cherries because if we all shipped down (to Gray and Co.), there would be an oversupply."

Keeping WRS open is on the minds of many in the cherry business, not the least of which is WRS Owner Chris Hubbell.

"We're working with the DEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) very closely in doing what they want us to do. Our intention is to be here for a long time to come," said Hubbell, part of a farming family in Williamsburg.

As for the lagoon that spewed odors into his neighbor's airspace, Hubbell says most of the offensive waste has been hauled away to a treatment facility downstate. Approximately one-eighth of the lagoon still needs to be emptied, something Hubbell expects to complete this summer.

Part of a treatment facility that was built in 2002 will be used to treat waste going forward, Hubbell said.

"We are working with local engineering firms and other specialized companies in the wastewater field to treat it to specifications as mandated by the DEQ," he said. "We're hoping to have this permitted process in place by late fall."

Those affected by the odors plan on making sure. Last month, a ruling by Ingham County Circuit Judge Paula Manderfield allowed the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council (NMEAC) and several neighboring property owners to intervene in the state's lawsuit against WRS.

While attorneys for WRS appeal this ruling, a lawyer for NMEAC and the neighbors says they "have a right to intervene."

"It's a civil case and it's giving the people who are affected by this a seat at the table," said attorney Christopher Bzdok.

While Bzdok says that his group is "certainly happy" Hubbell is trucking away the wastewater, he says that certain concerns remain, such as groundwater problems for the residents west of WRS.

As both sides wait to hear the appellate court's decision on whether or not NMEAC and the neighbors can indeed have a seat at the table, many others watch, wonder, and worry.

"If they go out of business, it would really set us back," said Elmwood Township resident Gary Kroupa. "I don't know what we'd do." BN