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Wanted: Soybeans

Published on 8 May, 2006, Last updated at 04:42 GMT

8th May, 2006: LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - Wanted: Soybeans

About 20,000 bushels of them every week for Wenger's Feed Mill's latest endeavor.

An enthusiastic new customer is now looking for soybeans from growers in Lancaster County and a wide surrounding region.

Wenger's Feed Mill in Rheems recently opened a new soybean-processing plant, and the plant will have a voracious appetite, operating on a 7-day schedule and processing 20,000 bushels of soybeans a week.

The new plant has taken about nine months to construct, and it covers 7,500 square feet. The highly automated facility is creating six new jobs, and it will require only one or two workers at any time.

The new plant features a silo that holds 30,000 bushels of soybeans, about a week and a half's worth of processing material. From the silo, the beans will go through a process that takes them from cleaner to dryer to hammer mill to extruder to presses to cooler to screening tank to decanter to tanks for both oil and expelled soybean meal.

Wenger's has been a familiar name in local agriculture for more than six decades. Mel Wenger started the business in Rheems in 1944, and the new plant is the latest addition to a steadily growing company that now operates five plants in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.

The feed business has changed significantly since the the firm's early days. Animal feed used to arrive in burlap bags weighing 50 or 100 pounds, but automation has brought big changes to the farm and to agribusiness.

"We do all bulk feed now," said Jamie Rowley, Wenger's chief administrative officer. "We deliver 23 tons per truckload."

Rowley said that after corn, soybeans are the No. 2 ingredient in Wenger's feeds. Soybeans are a highly versatile food and industrial product, and in their many forms, they're a staple in traditional supermarkets, in health food stores, and in animal feeds.

In addition, more than 90 percent of the nation's daily newspapers now print with color soy ink. So a new soybean plant might bring to mind thoughts of tofu, soy milk or biodiesel fuel.

At Wenger's, however, the new plant will produce expelled soybean meal, a premium animal feed ingredient. Wenger's currently uses the product in its feeds, but purchases it from other sources.

"The purpose of the new plant is to displace ingredients that we're currently buying from the Midwest," said Geoff Finch, Wenger's vice president of operations. Thus, the new plant will benefit both Wenger's and local farmers by creating a new market for locally grown beans and by reducing transportation costs.

While expelled soybean meal will be the primary product of the new plant, a valuable byproduct will be 1 million gallons of crude soybean oil a year, and Wenger's is currently negotiating with potential buyers of the oil.

For growers in and around Lancaster County, the new plant should mean good contracts. Mike Gerhart of Ephrata, a soybean grower and chairman of the Pennsylvania Soybean Board, sees opportunity in the new plant.

"It will bring more value to gross receipts per acre," he said. "It creates another buyer in the market. This can impact the region, not just the county."

"We'll buy a million bushels of soybeans a year from growers within a two-hour radius," Finch said.

Wenger's already purchases about 5 percent of Pennsylvania's annual soybean crop of 20 million bushels, and the new plant's capacity will increase that percentage to 10 percent, or 2 million bushels.

In absolute terms, that's a lot of soybeans, but in comparison to some other states, Pennsylvania is a rather modest soybean producer. For example, in 2005 Pennsylvania farmers planted 430,000 acres in soybeans, while Iowa farmers planted 10,200,000 acres. That's 15,937 square miles, or 28.5 percent of the land area in Iowa planted in soybeans.

In Lancaster County, growers planted about 24,000 acres of soybeans last year, compared to 175,000 acres of corn. With such a ready market, Gerhart said, those numbers may change somewhat. For a variety of reasons, soy has advantages over corn.

"Soy has a little less risk," he said. "It has better drought tolerance."

Soy also is a good part of a crop rotation cycle because it puts nitrogen into the soil. And, the cost of production for soy is somewhat lower than for corn.

Wenger's new facility will be producing animal feed, and it's possible the plant also will be producing some of the fuel the company's trucks will burn to deliver the feed.

"All of our trucks now use biodiesel," said Cher Rineer of Wenger's corporate communications office.


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