Local officials and farmers recently received an inside look into the county’s agricultural industry.
Hosted by AgChoice Farm Credit’s Rick Crouse and Katie Epstein, the Aug. 1 tour provided an inside look into local agribusinesses, including Zeigler Bros. Inc., Quality Greenhouses & Perennial Farm Inc., and Rice Fruit Company.
The tour was sponsored by Adams County Farm Bureau, AgChoice Farm Credit, and Gettysburg Young Farmers Association.
The tour group of about 50 local farmers, state representatives, commissioners, and legislative aides, was the largest to date, said Crouse.
Scott Howell, Biglerville High School agri-mechanics teacher, said despite participating in several agricultural tours and being a teacher 35 years, he had never been inside Zeigler’s feed mill. Howell said he was unaware of the amount of feed they export. He expressed excitement about telling his students of the job opportunities.
At Zeigler’s facilities in East Berlin and Gardners, the tour was greeted with the unmistakable scent of fish feed, such as when walking through the aquarium section of a pet store.
Zeigler’s is a third generation, privately-owned business. Started in 1935 manufacturing poultry and livestock feed, it has grown to making over 300 products.
“What feed don’t we have,” said Vice President of Operations Matt Zeigler.
The company has created specialty diets for pandas, manatees, exotic birds and critters as small as crickets and larvae, he said.
As president of Adams County Economic Development Corporation, the tour was personal for Robin Fitzpatrick who has helped arrange financing for many local agribusinesses, including a loan when Zeigler suffered a fire in 2007.
Promising, “nutrition through innovation,” quality ingredients are where it all starts, according to Zeigler.
“When you bring poor quality in, the product that goes out is not the best,” he said. “We have stayed in the area because of the quality of the local product. We buy local whenever we can.”
In 1986, Zeigler’s began to expand internationally into other countries including India, Egypt, Ecuador, and Mexico, said Zeigler
“Fifty percent of our sales go to over 50 countries,” said Zeigler.
Zeigler has been at the forefront of aquaculture for decades and was the first to create a “bio secure 100 percent Artemia replacement,” according to Dr. Tom Zeigler, senior technical advisor. Artemia is the primary feed for larval stages of fish and shrimp. Due to the increasing demands for Artemia and aquaculture, it was necessary to develop an alternative to Artemia. Zeigler’s bio secure alternative supplies the necessary nutrients, is more cost efficient, and more readily available, he said.
Aquaculture is essential to provide healthy sustainably-produced seafood, he said.
However, there is no local infrastructure to teach people to manage aquaculture farms or the technology behind it, Dr. Tom Zeigler said. As an efficient tool for production, he encouraged everyone to lend their support to aquaculture.
“People think you need to live near the ocean, but it can be anyplace,” he said.
Having passed by the feed mill countless times, “smelled the fish food” but never went inside, Sharon Stoner of Apple Valley Creamery was amazed by the magnitude of specialty products created by Zeigler’s and the “scale of how far they distribute.”
Technology and manufacturing are the main aspects of the facility.
Providing technical information on the tour was Product Manager Larry Strickhouser, who has been employed with Zeigler’s since 1970. Strickhouser said he started with scraping paint and has grown with the company.
“Not bad for a kid from Adams County,” he said.
Strickhouser pointed out enormous mixing bowl-like devices which turn ingredients into a “cake batter,” he said, with computers weighing the ingredients.
“It’s never boring,” Strickhouser said.
The flake and grinding room is where a micro-pulverizer creates extremely fine particles which become feed for small creatures such as larva. The pellets can become smaller than 400 microns, he said.
Sanitation is critical at Zeigler’s as they deal with many different diets and work hard to avoid cross contamination, he said.
It important for the animals to grow and thrive so farmers can earn a living, said Strickhouser.
Vitamin supplements are added to create nutritionally-complete diets, but Zeigler’s never adds antibiotics to its products, said Strickhouser.
One of the challenges faced by Zeigler’s stems from its international presence. They are affected by diplomatic ties and international relations, according to Matt Zeigler.
“Any product shipping on the water can stop. What was allowed one day, could not be another day,” he said.
With more than 100 employees, Matt Zeigler attributes the company’s success to the employees.
“It’s the people that drive Zeigler’s,” according to Matt Zeigler.
Some officials participated in the tour as a way to learn about the agricultural industry as a center of employment.
Chris Kimple, standing in for state Rep. Dan Moul (R-91), said agricultural products expand the economy. Agribusiness tours are “always a learning opportunity,” she said. Kimple said she always looks forward to learning about how agricultural products expand the economy, and how the government can “help at a state level.”
Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually was surprised by Zeigler’s export business. “When it comes to agriculture, people see cows in fields. They don’t see the specialty industry,” he said.
Traveling north over the county line to Dillsburg, the tour arrived at Quality Greenhouses & Perennial Farm Inc.
Quality stands out from other greenhouses because it sells exclusively to “independent garden centers, not box stores,” said Customer Service Representative Terry Bachman as she led the tour over the grounds.
Begun in 1986 in Mechanicsburg as a wholesale grower of bedding plants, perennials and fall flowering crops, Quality Greenhouses aims to be a one-stop shop for quality-grown products and features two more farms in York County.
The staff sometimes reaches up to 200 employees during the peak season, including many local people as well as workers from Mexico, for whom Quality Greenhouses provides housing and vehicles.
“It’s the same guys, year after year,” Bachmann said.
Quality Greenhouses is a vibrant part of the surrounding community, decorating the town with flowers.
“It’s a big team that works together,” Bachmann said.
Rice Fruit Company
The final stop on the agribusiness tour was Rice Fruit Company packing plant known for being, “the east’s leading fresh fruit packer,” according to their enormous sign in front of the business.
The fourth-generation facility was built over a period in the 1950s and has expanded greatly over the years.
With state-of-the-art equipment inside the facility, a “million dollar machine” is able to scan fruit and check for damage and rot, and random selections from each batch are sampled for quality, according to Lee Showalter who oversees grower services.
Because of food safety regulations, Rice’s has switched from wooden crates to plastic, said Showalter. These crates are quicker to stack and easier to clean, he said.
The machine can analyze and sort apples, sending the less-than-perfect fruit that cannot be packed to be made into cider or sauce, or disposed of, according to Showalter.
The tour was led on a catwalk where below fruit was sorted in countless flumes.
Atop the cooling facility is Rice Fruit’s green roof, a vegetation-based roof built in 2007 for stormwater maintenance. Also on the roof are solar panels at a less than 12 degree angle to “not draw attention away from the natural landscape,” according to Engineering Manager Danijel Lolic.
In order to keep up with demand, the company is currently working on integrating robots to perform some of the more tedious work, said Lolic. The facility brought in 16 additional employees to unpack and stack pallets last August, and by October, only two were still there, according to Lolic.
“I swore as little as a year ago, I’d never put a robot in,” said Lolic.
Robots are not displacing jobs, but replacing the positions they cannot keep filled doing the the tedious work, he said. People who would have worked those jobs are moved to doing more valuable jobs at Rice Fruit, he said.
The average employee has been with the company for 12 years, according to Lolic.
State Rep. Torren Ecker, (R-193) said agribusiness tours are a big part of Adams County. He was fascinated by a machine being able to scan and detect imperfections in fruit.
Ecker said he saw the tour as a learning experience.