WOOSTER, Ohio — From Amish-raised poultry to a high tech business that turns food and animal wastes into electricity and compressed natural gas, attendees on the annual Wayne County agribusiness tour got a good look at some of the prevailing ag businesses in their county, and across the state.
The tour, held Oct. 5, is a project of the county’s economic development council. Feature stops included Cedar Lane Farms, which works in the greenhouse, aquaculture and algae industries; Gerber Poultry, Buckeye Veal Services; Quasar Energy Group; and Natural Fiber Composites Corporation.
A tour bus and a large van transported the attendees, which included local farmers, county elected officials and various professionals involved with economic development.
Greenhouses and aquaculture
Tom Machamer, president of Cedar Lane Farms, welcomed the group to its first stop — a massive greenhouse operation with 300,000 square feet of growing area. Machamer and his staff produce seasonal plants, and already have started growing geraniums and ferns for next year.
His busy season begins the end of April and runs through May, for roughly six weeks. But it’s a year-round venture of planning and preparing, he said. His staffing needs range from 12 workers, to 50, depending on the season.
“It takes six-eight months to fill up these greenhouses and we get (six) weeks to get rid of them,” he said.
About 80 percent of the product is trucked to Columbus, and the rest is sold in places like Cincinnati, Akron and Mansfield.
Machamer believes in offering a diverse product. He’s constantly growing something new, whether it’s new plants or the perch fish and algae he now grows. The algae is grown to feed the fish, and the fish are sold for stocking ponds.
He jokes that he has an attention deficit, which leads him to explore so many ventures. But, he said having something new every year also helps satisfy his customers, who always want something new. It’s an experiment each time, as to what will be successful.
“You just have to have in your budget that you’re going to be trying new things all the time, or you’re going to go out of business,” he said. “That’s just the way it is, at least in our industry.”
On top of everything else he produces, Machamer also leases a small piece of land to Touchstone Research Laboratory of West Virginia. The company is building a multimillion dollar system of concrete ponds and enclosures to grow beneficial green algae.
The algae can be used for aquaculture, oil production and in some cases even the pharmaceutical industry, said Drew Spradling, director of business development for Touchstone.
The Ohio Department of Energy pumped about $6.4 million into the project, and it also has received other state funds. But Spradling is hopeful the project will soon be in the position to sustain itself, as the technology is licensed to private businesses wanting to get into algae development and production.
He figures one acre can produce about 2,000 gallons of oil a year, considerably higher than an acre of soybeans, which he estimated to be capable of roughly 70 gallons.
The tour got a little tasty around midday, when some of the staff from Gerber Poultry presented food samples and a discussion of what they do to produce and market Amish-raised, all-natural chicken.
The family-owned businesses has been producing chicken since 1952 and currently sells to premium retail markets throughout the state. What sets Gerber Poultry apart is what their chicken is fed, how it’s fed and how good it tastes.
“You eat a Gerber Poultry chicken breast and then eat somebody else’s, you can tell you’ve eaten Gerber Poultry,” said John Metzger, chief financial officer.
The many things not fed include added hormones, antibiotics and animal byproducts. And, the meat is not enhanced with water, which means you’re getting more chicken per pound of product than with some other, larger brands, Metzger said.
The company processes about 70,000-80,000 birds a day and employs about 375, making it the county’s fifth largest employer, he said. About 380,000 eggs are produced each week at the hatchery in Orrville.
Gerber Poultry operates its own retail store in Kidron and sells all major poultry foods.
Those grain prices
A big concern has been the cost of grain and chicken feed. Metzger said the farms, which are about 95 percent Amish, are committed to feeding the same type of feed all year, but recent highs in grain prices have affected business and profitability.
“Feed is a big factor to us,” he said. “When this stuff (corn) was going at eight dollars a bushel, our feed costs were skyrocketing. It’s a difficult balancing act to maintain a poultry operation in this industry today.”
In recent years, the restaurant Chipotle Mexican Grill has become a marketer of Gerber Poultry, beginning with the Wooster store, and now pushing close to 20 locations.
Because the farms do not use antibiotics, their bird loss to mortality is much higher, but it helps them distinguish themselves from other, larger poultry operations, Metzger said.
When it comes to businesses that are changing and evolving, the state’s veal industry is among the top.
Gaylord Barkman, director of sales and services for Buckeye Veal Services, opened the doors to two of the company’s barns, where the new state-approved group housing model is used.
After 2017, Ohio’s new livestock standards for veal require calves to be housed in turnaround housing, and in groups of two or more after 10 weeks of age.
Buckeye Veal has been in the conversion process the past several years and Barkman said when it’s all done, will be in a better position to meet customer demand.
Raising veal calves in single confinement, nonturnaround pens had previously been an accepted industry practice, drawing criticism from some consumers and animal rights activists.
“Our customers don’t want it (stall tethering) and the people eating it don’t want it,” Barkman said. “This is for the longevity of the industry. It’s easier for us to market against that (tethering).”
Buckeye Veal Services started with the Wayne Mullet family about 30 years ago, and grew into some modern barns in the 1990s. The family started with a few thousand head, and today, the company and its many producers market more than 20,000 head.
Buckeye Veal Services merged with a major processor, Atlantic Veal & Lamb of Brooklyn, N.Y., about four years ago, and continues to operate its own feed and slaughter plants.
One of the most innovative stops on the tour was Quasar Energy Group, where officials continue to operate and improve a 550,000-gallon anaerobic digester on the Wooster campus of Ohio State University. The facility takes food wastes from area restaurants and grocery stores and uses anaerobic digestion to produce electricity and biogas.
Most recently, Quasar has been producing compressed natural gas and can fill and operate its own vehicles at its Wooster and Columbus, Ohio, plants. The Wooster plant also supplies about half of the electricity needs of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center campus.
It’s breakthrough technology, but the concepts are actually fairly simple, explained Russ Yoder, project developer for Quasar.
“We are a facility composed of tanks and pumps,” he said.
Waste is brought in, digested in the tanks, energy is produced, and then the leftover product is transported and spread on farmers’ fields as a fertilizer.
European companies are further ahead with this technology, he said, but Quasar and the United States are making big strides, as far west as Hawaii.
“You’re looking at an American plant on American soil, producing American renewable energy,” Yoder said. The digesters also can use livestock and human waste to produce energy.
Fibers and composites
The tour also included a presentation by Natural Fiber Composites Corporation. Prabhat Krishnaswamy, president, said he and researchers with OARDC are working to combine the state’s top industries — agriculture and plastics — to form affordable, dependable composite material that can be used in automobile interiors, fencing and decking, and much more.
“We have two very mature technologies coming together and there’s an opportunity for innovation,” he said.
The fibers of certain crops are combined with the plastics to form composites, which often weigh less than other products, are recyclable, and can be just as durable.