Made in Lansing: A celebration of things made in greater Lansing 

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Welcome to City Pulse’s first-ever “Lansing Made” issue, a tradition we hope to continue for years to come. 

Looking statewide, many things are made in Michigan, “a hand as fruitful as the land that feeds us,” as Shakespeare described the Mitten State. (Actually, he was describing something else, so excuse his omission of the Upper Peninsula.)

The value of Michigan’s diverse local agriculture and industries has never been more evident than it has in recent months, in the wake of a pandemic, widespread disruption of the global supply chain and a catastrophic European war. These, and many other future uncertainties, lurk beyond the shores of the Great Lakes, but here in Michigan, at least for the time being, things seem well in hand.

However, this time, we have chosen to focus on a sampling of things that are made near our home base of greater Lansing. We can only showcase a tiny sample of the state’s great bounty in the space we have, but the half-dozen businesses profiled in these pages offer a window into the astonishing diversity of agricultural, manufacturing and high-tech products being made across the state.

With a couple of exceptions, we’ve chosen to showcase things that are made locally but seldom, if ever, get a local retail showcase. You may never buy a circuit board or an air compressor, for example, or even think about them, but every time you drive a car, you are relying on both.

In agriculture alone, the scale of activity represented here ranges from colossal operations like the MWC Glanbia cheese and whey processing plant in St. Johns, which pumps out 800,000 pounds of cheese a day across the nation, to Agape Organic Farms near Dansville, where Berkshire pigs, nutritious microgreens and artisanal mushrooms are grown by a scientifically minded, determined single mom, to the delight of locally conscious diners.

The area’s diverse industrial output ranges from the hulking cast iron air compressors fabricated by 115-year-old Saylor-Beall Manufacturing Co. of St. Johns to Lectronix Inc. in Lansing, where computer-savvy designers and builders turn out high-tech circuit boards for a variety of complex motor vehicles and other devices.

We’ll see how nimbly Michigan entrepreneurs jump into a niche and adapt old equipment for a new purpose, as Larry Judge of Mitten State Malt in Okemos retooled obsolete dairy and farm equipment to process malt for thirsty local breweries and distilleries.

No tour is complete without a stop at the gift shop. The jam-packed (including jams) gift shop at the Michigan History Center near the state Capitol is a showcase for hundreds of products made in Michigan, from Upper Peninsula copper to neckties made in Detroit.

You can’t buy a 30-horsepower air compressor or a 640-pound block of cheese, but you can take home a pair of Petoskey stone earrings as a reminder that our state is built on a sound bedrock of smart people, big ideas and hard work. 

Big cheese 

St. Johns cheese and whey plant ramps up to full capacity at MWC

Hang on to your tuffet, little Miss Muffett. Here comes the biggest wad of curds and whey you’ve ever seen. Let’s hope the spider isn’t to scale.

MWC, a spanking new, 400,000-square-foot cheese and whey processing plant near St. Johns, north of Lansing, is designed to handle a staggering 8 million pounds of milk a day — 25 percent of the milk produced in the state.  The 120-acre complex came on line in October 2020 and ramped up to full capacity in June 2021, a joint venture of the multinational food giant Glanbia Nutritionals, Dairy Farmers of America and El Paso-based Select Milk Producers. 

Manish Paudel came to St. Johns from Glanbia’s Gooding, Idaho, plant four years ago, excited at the prospect of helping build and staff a huge new facility. 

He describes the mammoth operation as calmly as if it were a quiet artisanal shop, although he admits that “it’s a pretty big facility and there’s a lot going on.”

Before becoming site manager at St. Johns, Paudel was part of the team that hired and trained the plant’s 216 employees.

Why park such a giant operation smack in the middle of Michigan? For much the same reason Lansing became the capital.

“Look at a Michigan map,” he said. “We’re right in the middle of it. It’s a strategic location where dairy farmers can bring their product to market without paying high freight costs. Before we were here, all that milk was going out of the state.”

Glanbia, a name derived from the Irish words for “pure” (glan) and “food,” has its roots in the consolidation of the Irish dairy industry in the 19th and 20th centuries from small farmers to cooperatives to larger processing plants. The St. Johns plant is one of seven U.S. facilities run by MWC Glanbia. 

Every day, around the clock, about 100 tankers of milk from a 100-mile radius pull into eight receiving bays. Regular sized tankers hold 50,000 pounds of milk. “Supertankers” hold 110,000 pounds.

“Those are unique to Michigan,” Paudel said. “We never saw supertankers in Idaho.”

The raw milk supply is pasteurized and sent into horizontal cheese vats where rennet and cheese cultures are added.

“We basically cook the cheese in those vats,” Paudel said.

It takes about two hours for the enzymes to do their mysterious work and turn a vat of milk into a soup of solid cheese curds and liquid whey.

The slurry is fed onto a massive conveyor belt system two stories tall, where the whey and the cheese curds part ways.

The curds are banished to “the towers,” where they are pressed into dense, 640-pound blocks about half the size of a refrigerator. Some of the cheese is cut into 40-pound blocks.

The cheese is chilled in a warehouse for about two weeks before being shipped to big users and sellers of cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby Jack and similar American-style cheeses, mostly in the Midwest and on the East Coast, including many well-known companies.

Meanwhile, the liquid whey is pumped to a processing plant, where lactose and minerals are removed. Multiple filtration stations bring the whey’s protein content from 1% to 90%. The result is whey protein isolate, a concentrated powder used in nutritional supplements and similar products for athletes, babies and other voracious humans.

A separate company, Proliant, has a plant at the St. Johns site where it processes lactose permeate — lactose and minerals left over from the cheese making process.

The milky water left over from the process is filtered, used to clean the plant equipment and sent to an in-house wastewater treatment plant.

Paudel thanked the people and the state of Michigan for “one of the best ramp-ups in the industry.”

“We’re fortunate to have the skill set this area has,” he said. “Zero to 8 million gallons a day in six months is pretty impressive. They picked this stuff very quickly, they were in line with our safety and quality values, and did it all in the middle of a pandemic.” 

Harvest from the hands

Michigan History Center Gift Shop doubles down on buying local 

Touristy trinkets made overseas and slapped with a local logo have never gotten much traction at the Michigan History Center and Library of Michigan gift shop, 702 W. Kalamazoo St., just west of downtown Lansing.

But the fun and pride of buying local took on a new dimension when store manager Kay Ann Schlang joined the shop in October 2019.

“We really pivoted when the pandemic hit,” Schlang said.  “The bulk stuff that came from overseas is impossible to get. Container shipping charges and port delays have been ridiculous. So everybody that’s reached out to me, I’ve tried to find a place for them in the store — pottery, consumables, even coffee.”

Dozens of artisans and vendors from around the state bring their best work here, from jewelry to toys, books, honey and jam, clothing and sundry unclassifiable treasures. 

Here you can find earrings made of quintessentially Michigan stuff such as Upper Peninsula copper, Petoskey stones and Fordite, the richly patterned, agate-like paint slag salvaged from the paint booths of Detroit’s auto assembly lines.

A big hit at all of the gift shop’s locations are finely crafted ceramic buttons emblazoned with fish, bears, bugs and dozens of other native Michigan creatures, made by Touchstone Pottery in DeWitt.

One of the shop’s most popular stops is a cheery display of candles emblazoned with the logos of some 30 Faygo pop varieties, including obscurities like “Moon Mist,” hand poured at Heart of Michigan in Howell. They’re easy to find, even in these jam-packed aisles. Just look for a group of dreamy looking seniors, with their eyes closed, inhaling the note-perfect smells of Red Pop, Rock & Rye and Vanilla Crème and regressing blissfully into childhood.

Nearby, ultra-sharp ties from Detroit’s Cyberoptix Tie Lab are printed with all manner of inventive designs, from the Detroit Tigers’ Old English “D” to the architectural plans for Detroit’s Michigan Central Train Station. 

The shop gleams from all corners with clocks and other things made out of Michigan copper from Houghton and elsewhere in the Upper Peninsula.

Among the biggest sellers here are Ludington-made Sister Bees lip balm and skin moisturizers, including a mosquito bite balm, and toxin-free nail polish, made in Traverse City, with colors like Copper Country, Sunset on the Lake and Monarch Butterfly.

Candy-apple-red Tawas Point nail polish is especially popular at the History Center’s field gift shop at Tawas Point Lighthouse, where the polish matches the red-roofed service building.

In addition to managing the landlocked Lansing shop, Schlang oversees the Tawas Point shop on Lake Huron and two field locations in the Upper Peninsula, at Fayette State Park and Harbor on the north shore of Lake Michigan and the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee.

The history center and library don’t stop at marketing Michigan-made products. A home-grown project called Michiganology, spearheaded by state archivist Mark Harvey, makes its own line of products, sold at the Lansing shop and on the Michiganology website.

Two giant printers and a specialized press downstairs at the History Center print, press and cut puzzles based on historic photos of railroads, birds-eye historical views of Michigan and other documents from the archives.

Michiganology also produces decorative prints, including a limited-edition Arctic grayling print, timed for the DNR’s ongoing reintroduction of the arctic Grayling into Michigan waters. Some of the Michiganology shirts are printed by Slick Shirts on Vine Street in Lansing, just a few blocks away from the museum.

“We’re going to start using them more, because they’re local,” Schlang said.

The gift shop has stepped up its efforts to offer items related to exhibits. A major upcoming exhibit of work by Mathias J. Alten, a Michigan Impressionist artist called the “dean of Michigan painters,” will bring prints, magnets, scarves and earrings based on the paintings. For Schlang and the shop staff, each day brings a shipment of something new and different. 

“We love it when the coffee shipments come in,” she said. “Everybody walks in and says, ‘Wow, it smells great in here.’”

The best time to visit is after 2 p.m., unless you like to navigate excited throngs of kids on school trips.

As Schlang and I talked, a 7-year-old boy walked purposely to the counter and announced himself. 

“I’m coming back here again,” he declared.

Low hiss of a cobra

Saylor-Beall celebrates 115 years of air compression

You’ll find none of your boxy, depressing, pastel-colored, fade-into-the-woodwork air compressors at the Saylor-Beall Manufacturing Co. in St. Johns.

Each Saylor-Beall unit is a bulbous, industrial grade symphony in heavy metal, from the smartly stacked ribs of the cast iron intercooler to the gleaming, manatee-sized tank emblazoned with the retro Saylor-Beall logo. The motor purrs like a barrel-chested panther at 1750 RPM, sending compressed air through the valve with the low hiss of a cobra set to strike.  

The 115-year-old business is a notable survivor in an ever-consolidating field. The company moved to St. Johns from Detroit in 1944. The 50,000-square-foot plant was rebuilt in 1955. 

Retooling with the latest equipment has helped the company adapt and endure, but it hasn’t been easy to fend off competition from overseas companies and domestic giants like Ingersoll Rand.

Bruce McFee joined the firm in 1985 and he’s been president since 1994.

“We’ve tooled the plant up, worked with the UAW and figured out how to build a niche,” McFee said. The last four years, he said, have been busier than ever.

About 90 percent of Saylor-Beall’s compressors are sold outside Michigan, mainly to auto dealers, small manufacturers or for use in commercial HVAC systems. 

“It brings in a lot of revenue from outside the state, money that gets spent here in Michigan,” McFee said. Many of Saylor Beall’s 44 employees have been with the company for 30, 40 and even 50 years.

“We’re probably the most successful independently owned company left in the industry,” McFee said. “There’s been ups and downs over the years, but orders right now are phenomenal.”

McFee estimated that Saylor Beall handles about 25 percent of commercial installations in Michigan, and a smaller share around the country.

This is no mere assembly facility. Here, they fabricate the whole compressor pump — cylinders, blocks, crankshafts, connecting rods and all. All other components, including motors and air valves, come from domestic manufacturers.

In McFee’s view, the benefits of keeping small- and mid-size manufacturers in Michigan go beyond bringing in out-of-state revenue.

“It’s good for people to know the value of manufacturing in the area,” McFee said. “It brings money in from the outside, the wages are pretty good, employment stability is good. As we convert to a service economy, we’re finding out, with worldwide events, that maybe you need some of this basic business still done in the United States, just from a security standpoint.”

Bring your own water, hops and yeast

Larry Judge brings homemade Mitten State Malt to mid-Michigan

Why is there no malt in heaven? Because we make it here.

Livestock veterinarian Larry Judge recalled sitting in his car in 2014 at the corner of Okemos Road and Grand River Avenue, listening to a news story on the burgeoning craft beer scene. 

“The reporter said that with hundreds of breweries in Michigan, nothing was grown in Michigan, or even processed in the state,” Judge said. “It was a light bulb moment.”

As any medieval monk knows, beer is the fermented product of water, malt, hops and yeast.

“We grow lots of wheat in Michigan and we can grow barley,” Judge said. “Back in the day, Stroh’s grew 30,000 acres in Michigan and malted it in Detroit.”

The problem, according to the radio report, was a lack of local malt houses.

Two questions flashed into Judge’s mind.

First: “Can I start a malt house?”

Second: “What’s a malt house?

As of 2022, there are about a half dozen malt houses in Michigan, in Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula.

“The industry is in its infancy, but we have a national guild now,” Judge said. “That’s partly because people are starting to ask brewers where the ingredients come from.”

There is no place to purchase off-the-rack small malt house equipment, so Judge adapted a variety of farm and industrial gizmos to his small-scale operation. 

His steep tank, where the grain is soaked, and kiln tank, where it’s dried, are modified stainless steel milk bulk tanks, built to last, but no longer big enough for modern dairy farms.

Relatives and friends helped Judge fabricate stainless steel fixtures, ducts, fans and electrical panels.

The company logo, designed by Judge’s oldest daughter, Ann, depicts a stalk of “two row barley,” referring to the two rows of kernels in the head.  (Common field barley has six rows.)

The rye, barley and wheat come from various local suppliers, including Judge’s own family farm.

“I’m not an owner, but I take advantage of my status as eldest son and tell my brother, ‘I’m going to grow some barley in this field,’ and they go, ‘Oh, OK.’ Of course, I do all their vet work for them on their cows.”

The first stop for the raw grain is the “steep tank,” a stainless-steel bathtub where it soaks under about a foot of water, warmed (or cooled) to about 60 degrees. 

“We’re trying to raise the moisture content of that grain until it starts growing,” Judge said.

Usually, Judge begins the steeping process on Sundays. By Tuesday, tiny rootlets are sprouting from the kernel and it’s time to toss the moist grains onto a “malting floor,” a steel platform where Judge tosses, flattens and flips the grains with a big shovel until all growth stops. 

“We’re cruel,” he said. “We kill the seed.”

In another repurposing coup, Judge found a cheap and effective way to fit a network of 35 metal baffles under the malting floor to keep the air circulating.

“They aren’t designed for malting,” he said with a grin. “They were designed to hold up network computers, back when network computers filled rooms and generated a lot of heat.”

The malt then rests in a kiln or grain drier, made from another repurposed milk tank. After about 20 hours of drying, the malt gets a final blast of heat that cooks it brown.

“That’s where the brown color of beer comes from,” he said.

Finally, the grain is fed into “de-bearder” to knock the rootlets, or culm, off the grains, and gets a final screening before the dry, clean seeds are loaded into bags.

“All you have to do is roll it to crush it, soak it in hot water, boil that water, cool it, add your yeast and in a week, you’ve got beer,” he said, as if it all went without saying. “I do it in my garage, just for fun.”

Judge finishes out 350 to 400 pounds of barley malt or 500 pounds of wheat malt in one batch — about a week’s work.

Locally, his malt is used in a beer called Mitten State White, always on tap at Lansing’s EagleMonk Pub and Brewery. Max’s Crystal Mitten, a beer named after EagleMonk’s brand new grandson, Max, combines Michigan-grown Crystal Hop with Mitten State Malt. Judge also supplies malt to Ozone Brewery in Old Town, Dime’s Brewhouse in Dimondale, Ironbark Brewery in Jackson, Mountain Town Brewing Co. in Mt. Pleasant and several other pubs and restaurants across the state.

The craft brewery market, while still strong, is showing signs of leveling off, but a new horizon beckons: craft distilleries. The American single malt whiskey market is only beginning to take off. Judge is planning and scouting out a new location where he can scale up to two tons per week.

Michigrain Distillery has already used Judge’s malts to make whiskey, and he hopes to link up with other local distilleries such as Red Cedar Spirits.

“Their stills are huge, and their minimum batch size to steep in is 1,800 pounds,” Judge said. “Right now, that would take me six weeks, but in my new system, I could do two batches a week.”

Lansing singularity

Lectronix makes a move into the ‘Internet of Things’

The “x” in Lectronix could easily stand for the unknown. Physical objects are merging more closely than ever with the electronic circuit boards that govern them, and thousands of those circuit boards are made in Lansing. 

Lectronix, in its 20th year, designs and builds circuit boards that perform a dizzying range of tasks, from monitoring the air pressure in a tire to running big and complicated vehicles like a semi-truck or a police car.

Lectronix President Tom Bayerl has seen a lot of changes in high tech, but even he doesn’t know what might come next.

Bayerl started out building desktop computers after graduating from MSU in the late 1980s. He co-founded the predecessor of Lectronix, Tel-Gen, specializing in telecommunications, during the dot-com boom of the early 2000s.

The feast didn’t last, but Bayerl and his colleagues were in an ideal position to pivot.

When they formed Lectronix in 2002, the auto industry was undergoing a major revolution in computer technology. It was the perfect time to be a small company in Michigan, specializing in advanced circuit board design and manufacturing.

“It’s natural that we fell into these niche markets — police cars, motorhomes, trucks,” Bayerl said. “These are vehicles that are not made in the millions, but they still need all this advanced technology.”

Bayerl still works with some of the same people he met as an undergraduate at MSU in the late 1980s. 

“We’ve stayed together, although it’s been through some transitions,” he said.

More than 75 police departments, including the Los Angeles, San Francisco police departments and the Massachusetts state police, use Lectronix systems.  Standard police cars often have a potentially dangerous clutter of equipment — a laptop on a pedestal in the passenger space, lights and siren controller, land mobile radio, scanners and other paraphernalia.

Lectronix systems replace much of the clutter with a dashboard screen run by a high-end processor, with steering wheel controls.

After meeting stringent requirements, Lectronix contracted directly with Ford Motor Co. to build the 2020 Ford Interceptor, an integrated package that combines in-dash display, HVAC controls, a PC interface and an Android platform.

This year, Lectronix equipped 3,600 California State Police vehicles with a custom-designed computerized control system, at about $2500 a pop.

Lectronix also builds advanced navigation systems for trucks and motor homes, and works with major companies like Panasonic and Bose to design state-of-the-art touch screens and “head units” (controls) that help drivers get the most out of their speakers.

Although it’s not quite as sexy, Lectronix also builds about a thousand tire pressure sensors, used to ensure tire safety in many types of vehicles, each day. 

“We love to work with these different industries, educate others and help them learn,” Bayerl said. “Electronics is becoming so important in so many different industries, compared to 10 years ago.”

You can joke all you want about a smart toaster, but the next frontier for Lectronix is the much-heralded “Internet of Things.” Lectronix is starting to work with big companies that are out to customize and “smarten up” formerly inert devices such as windows and door knobs.

The coming revolution reminds Bayerl of 20 years ago, when the number of communications devices connected to the internet began to explode.

“It started out very low, and then it grew with the explosion of desktop PCs, and then it got five times bigger with smartphones,” he said. “All of that pales compared to the Internet of Things.”

Even an electronics giant like Samsung can’t handle all of that work or customize its services like Lectronix can.

“I’m not a home techie, but even I have seven or eight devices that are on the internet — my camera, my thermostat, my doorbells,” Bayerl said. “As these things connect together more and more, even a smart toaster might seem to make sense someday.”

Micro-greens and macro-pigs

Agape Organic Farms raises purebred Berkshire pigs

For pioneering Dansville organic farmer Shara Trierweiler, spring means the pitter-patter of tiny ungulates.

Trierweiler raises about 30 purebred Berkshire pigs in an organic rotational grazing system designed to keep them healthy and not to stress them out, following the methods and principles of animal behaviorist Temple Grandin.

One pig had four babies last week. Four pregnant moms, due in April, are expected to produce litters of 10 each.

“So in another month or so, we’ll get another 40 pigs,” Trierweiler said. “It’s been kind of crazy.”

Agape Organic Farms is a combination farm, science lab and demonstration of one woman’s determination to carve out a place in the world that merits the slogan “no bad stuff, ever.”

The farm produces super-nutritious micro-greens, over 30 varieties of mushrooms and the prized, well-marbled pork of organically raised Berkshire pigs.

Trierweiler also has nine dairy goats, but only for the milk and the services they render “defoliating noxious weeds.” Chickens provide eggs and gobble up harmful parasites and flies in the pig wallows. 

Trierweiler grows over 27 varieties of mushrooms.

She’s working on a new setup that will move her mushroom growing operation, laboratory and all, into spacious converted shipping containers.

At present, her dining room serves as her “clean room” and lab for growing mushrooms, complete with Laminar flow hood, ozone generator and other filtering equipment.  She has to don a HAZMAT suit to handle the culture and substrate.

“I’m a bit of a science geek,” she said.

Trierweiler soaked up a love of ecology when her granduncle, an environmentalist, took her along on trips to rain forests to analyze soil, water and air.

“I was exposed from a young age to some pretty top-notch scientists,” she said. “I wanted to become an environmentalist, but my mom thought they lived a semi-nomadic life and don’t make money.”

Her math acumen made her a success at business school. She got a master’s degree in finance and worked as an investment banker for Chase, a wealth manager for Merrill Lynch and a retail manager for PNC Bank.

In 2013, she met a woman at the Ohio State Fair who raised pigs and ran an organic farm.

“She changed the trajectory of my life,” Trierweiler recalled. “I’d never seen a woman farming and doing well. She introduced me into the organic movement, and  that propelled me to where I am right now.”

She took classes, attended workshops and found mentors. She sold her house in Ohio and moved to Michigan with her husband, now her ex-husband.

“I ended up in a domestic violence shelter, and my son and I were homeless while farming for a little over two years,” she said. “It was pretty intense. There were many times I thought I was going to quit, but I’m pretty determined.”

She bought her Dansville house in 2020, leased land from a neighbor and set to work on building a farm with a reputation for quality produce.

Locally, Trierweiler sells her meat and produce at the Meridian Farmers Market, delivers to customers in a 25-mile radius and supplies produce and meat to a few restaurants in the Grand Rapids area. She has plans to expand the operation, take on employees and distribute her produce more widely.

Trierweiler has plenty on her plate already, but she also feels a unique responsibility to help others succeed at organic farming.

“I’m one of very few Black farmers in the state of Michigan,” she said. “My goal is to work with The Fledge to create an immersion program for kids in the inner city, primarily Black kids, excited about farming in a rural setting.” The Fledge is a nonprofit community center on Lansing’s east side.

There are fewer than 20 Black-owned farms in Michigan, according to Trierweiler. That means that most prospective Black farmers can’t meet federal requirements for previous farm experience, ownership or legacy farm family status to apply successfully for startup loans and other forms of aid.

She wants to create a leadership internship to bridge that gap.

“We’ll link up interested BIPOC kids with a farmer, with the expectation that they get a leadership and decision-making position on that farm,” she said. 

The program would not only help young Black farmers learn from a successful farmer; it would also help them meet the criteria to access federal funds.

“The organic movement gave birth to me,” she said. “It’s a system I really believe in, and  I want to show those kids that it’s good for the pigs, good for the environment and good for the humans.”

She does it all as a single mom with two kids. Her son, Dominic, is autistic and needs special care. Her 17-year-old daughter, Philomena, goes off to college this year.

“Unfortunately, I’m good at cloning mushrooms, not so much with people,” she said. 

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