Wayne County tour highlights innovation in Ohio agriculture

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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.”

Algae research

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.

Gerber Poultry

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.

Veal industry

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.

Biogas potential

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.

About the Author

Chris Kick lives in Wooster, Ohio. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University. He spends his free time on his grandparents’ farms in Wayne and Holmes counties. More Stories by Chris Kick

8 Comments

  1. FED-UP &PO'd farmer says:

    This seemingly unemotional piece has an underlying, disturbing element that tragically is becoming all-too common lately. First of all, I want to point out the section of Gerber poultry Processing. They insinuate that their poultry is free of hormones and antibiotics while poultry from other processors is pumped full of it. This is a rotten lie and complete deception of the truth. Antibiotics ARE NOT allowed in ANY food product and hormones ARE NOT given to ANY poultry. The anti-coccidial product used by some growers is NOT used by humans, and is only fed for a very brief time, completely out of the system before processing.

    The next thing that needs addressing is Buckeye Veal-along with its “leader”. This is the same person who corruptly abused his position on the Livestock Careboard and ignored ALL-repeat-ALL scientific studies to FORCE his methods onto the entire veal industry-knowing WITHOUT A DOUBT that this would force over half the veal industry to be financially ruined and be forced to exit the veal industry. It is crystal clear that this was done to gain huge market shares at the expense of fellow veal farmers.

    If this is what “modern innovation” is-count me OUT. I do NOT believe in spreading deceptive, nasty lies and half-truths about my fellow farmers just to increase my sales; nor do I believe in stepping on and driving fellow farmers out of business just to gain a stronger market share. Farmers use to help and support one another-not stab each other in the back and them crap on them. I thought we were better than that…

  2. Chris Kick says:

    Mr. Barkman did not “force” his methods onto anyone, especially not the 13-member livestock care board. They are individuals who listened, deliberated and cast their own unanimous decision to move calves to group housing. Good or bad, his model of group pens will be the required model of the future and is therefore worth featuring.

    • FED-UP &PO'd farmer says:

      Was not Barkman on the veal committee??? Was he not TOTALLY biased that “his” methods should be implemented-even though they were NOT scientifically proven-and tethering of calves IS PROVEN by ALL scientific studies to actually be better for calves?? Was not the Careboard supposedly setup to protect farmers and make decisions based on SCIENCE-NOT emotion??? Your own writings confirm this all…Yes-good or bad (more like right or wrong) Barkmans setup is featured because it is mandatory for the future…My point is that he and his fellow cohorts on the careboard completely disregarded fellow veal farmers and he is profiting from an increased market share from eliminating his competition-something the careboard was NOT suppose to allow happen.

  3. Chris Kick says:

    Here is a good link to Gerber Poultry’s philosophies on poultry production. I do not see any “lies” and “half-truths” to tell how their own chicken is produced.

    http://www.gerbers.com/foodthink.shtml

    • FED-UP &PO'd farmer says:

      It is NOT their production I am refering to…it is their IMPLYING that other farmers use hormones to raise their poultry, as well as pumping them full of antibiotics. Their marketing is meant to make their product look better by making people THINK that poultry from other farms is raised poorly…and, by the way-just why is poultry raised by people of one faith better than that of people raised by another faith??? Another marketing ploy implying that people of Amish faith raise their birds “better” than people of Catholic, Methodist, ect., faiths. It is this deception that makes other poultry farmers look “bad” that I refer to as half-truths and lies.

  4. Done with F&D says:

    Chris,
    In regards to Fed-Up’s comments (Which I agree with to a large extent) you are quick to defend “Mr Barkman” and the care board; where were you in defending half of the veal industry who will be forced to close their doors once the veal standards take effect? In a time when jobs are so important, the actions of “Mr Barkman” and others like yourself are putting family farms out of business all while puff pieces such as this are written promoting it.

    Something is wrong here.

  5. okiestorm1 says:

    It seems to me that The ohio livestock and other animal/meat producers need to start working together and quite bashing each other and destroying the farmers and ranchers of Ohio. We need to quite bowing down to HSUS and those like HSUS that are only hurting the industry.I personaly do not think its right to tell someone how to raise thier animals when they have been doing it for a long time just fine.I get so tired of people saying animals arn’t fit to eat cause they were given drugss,even if they are given drug the drug are out of the animals system with in 3 days i don’t care what drug it is.I would rather have a healthy animal then a sick one,drug free dose not always mean heaalthy animal.

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