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COLDWATER, MI -- A who's-who of the state's pork industry convened in a field outside Coldwater July 23 to turn over a row of mirror-buffed shovels, symbolically beginning the construction of the biggest new agricultural processing facility in Michigan's recent memory. Look for the same group two years from now to reconvene wielding oversized ceremonial scissors at a ribbon-cutting—to open Clemens Food Group's new pork processing plant.

Attended by four of the Clemens family's six generations, Thursday's ceremony also brought together some of the state's biggest pork producers—the group of farmers who themselves are largely responsible for bringing this new market to Michigan. Among them was Fred Wolcott, an Ottawa County hog producer and current president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association.

"For years we've taken our product to the market and accepted what the market will pay," Walcott said. "Today we're taking steps forward and opening up that market to our ingenuity—deciding that we can also play in that arena of price discovery in working more toward the finished product and bringing it up for all of agriculture in the state of Michigan, from the guys raising the grains to the guys contract-finishing hogs to the guys that are the founding partners of this operation."

Other members of that founding-partner group in attendance Thursday were hog producers Harley Sietsema (Ottawa County), Ed Reed (Cass County), Pat Hunter (Kalamazoo County) and Joel Phelps (Ottawa County).

Once operational, Clemens' new 550,000-square-foot facility will process 10,000 hogs daily and create an estimated 800 new jobs—and fill a gaping hole in the state's agricultural processing landscape. Since Thornapple Valley pulled up stakes 15 years ago, Michigan farmers have had little choice but to ship market hogs out of state.

"With only a limited amount of processing in the state of Michigan and good [hog-raising] operations of substantial size, a lot of the hogs have been going to processing plants in Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois," Walcott said. "It became obvious it was time for Michigan to take a serious look at the possibility of keeping those hogs right here."

Ernie Meily is vice president of human resources for the Clemens Food Group, and one of many company representatives attending Thursday's groundbreaking event. He had high praise for the array of local and state officials who together found an ideal site for the new facility.

"Coldwater has been very welcoming to us," he said. "Coldwater aligns with our core values of ethics, integrity and stewardship, and we really feel it's a perfect partnership."

Clemens' sole existing plant in Hatfield, Penn. turns out bacon, ham and sausages under the company's Hatfield brand, well-known on the East Coast. Once at full capacity, the Coldwater plant's output will consist primarily of fresh pork products.

"We're in a sold-out position on a lot of our value-added products, so we needed more raw product to expand our business," Meily said. "We found our producer partners here in Michigan were really open to our processes, and we felt that would really help us grow and expand the Clemens Food Group footprint."

Most of the plant's intake will consist of hogs finished and delivered by those established partners, but Meily promises the remaining capacity means opportunity for farms not yet connected to the company.

"The 12 producer partners make up about 80 percent of the supply," he said. "When we looked at this project we knew we needed three specific things. We needed the raw product—the hogs; we need a place to sell; and we needed the employee base to be able to create this plant.

"There will be opportunity for local producers to sell to this plant and become part of that producer network."

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