MEARS – Great Lakes Energy recently helped an Oceana County agricultural business secure a $900,000 zero-interest loan to help finance a $3.65 million expansion project that will benefit not only the business but also the surrounding community.
With assistance from the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, Mears-based Riley Orchards was able to take advantage of Great Lakes Energy’s Zero-percent Loan Program funded in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture. The program allows nonprofit utilities such as GLE to serve as a “pass-through” for federal economic development loans for “projects that will create or retain rural jobs.”
Until recently, Riley Orchards, a fifth-generation family-owned farm, has mainly focused on growing
asparagus, tart and sweet cherries, peaches, and apples on the farm’s more than 1,000 acres in Oceana County. But the family is now expanding their operation to include receiving and storing produce, both to diversify their business, and to fill an anticipated need for such services when the owner of an area receiving facility retires soon.
The project includes the construction of a new 224-foot by 112-foot building that will house six controlled atmosphere rooms, a two-bay truck dock, offices, a break room, and a mechanical room. Last year, Riley Orchards started barreling cherries for nearby Peterson Farms – about 5.8 million pounds of them. The new facility will not only allow the Rileys to continue in their new cherry barreling operation, but it will also allow them to receive and store apples and receive asparagus immediately after harvest.
Steve Riley, one of the owners of Riley Orchards, explained that temperature control is very important in keeping asparagus fresh after it is picked. He said the key to extending its shelf-life is quickly removing “field heat” from the picked asparagus. That’s where hydrocoolers come into play. As the name suggests, a hydrocooling unit uses water to quickly cool down the asparagus when it arrives at the receiving station.
Riley said the zero-interest loan from Great Lakes Energy is expected to reduce the pay-back time on the debt for the project by about three years.
He said he expects the project to result in the business adding two full-time and up to 35 part-time positions. The new facility is well on its way to completion and is expected to be ready for operation in the spring of 2022.
In addition to the loan obtained through Great Lakes Energy, the balance of the project’s cost will be paid for through a combination of Riley Orchards’ funds and a loan through Shelby State Bank. GLE has helped members obtain financing for economic development projects many times in the past. The most recent example was in 2019 when the cooperative helped Petoskey-based Manthei Veneer secure a $1.2 million zero-interest loan to help rebuild following a fire that destroyed its mill. GLE President and CEO Bill Scott (and NLEA Immediate Past Board Chair) said he is pleased the cooperative could contribute to Riley Orchards’ project.
“We are proud to support family-run businesses such as Riley Orchards as they work to grow their operations. Community focus is one of GLE’s guiding principles and we are happy to use this program in pursuit of that principle,” Scott said.
For more information about the Great Lakes Energy’s Economic Development Loan Program, visit GLE website.