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Agribusiness fuels economy of Central Pa.

Agribusiness — food processing and manufacturing in particular — is big business. And it is becoming an important part of the economic development strategy of several counties in the region.

Cumberland County has even made it a focus of business attraction.

Jonathan Bowser, CEO of the Cumberland Economic Development Corp., said the county has the capacity to grow in the agribusiness industry, but is low on available land with the proper infrastructure for food processing.

“We are trying to ensure that we have what we need as far as road networks, rail access and water and sewer capacity to be able to support new businesses coming into the area,” he said.

The county’s latest comprehensive plan for economic development highlighted attracting food processors and supporting expansion efforts by existing food manufacturers as areas of focus. Cumberland County is already home to several food processors and manufacturers such as ADM Milling, The Warrell Corp., Nestle Purina, Land O’Lakes Inc., Bimbo Bakeries USA, Kessler Foods Inc., Warrington Farm Meats and the Lindt Chocolate Factory Outlet.

“We have a very rich farming community with access to highways, interstates and consumers, and we are in a very strategic location with access to East Coast ports and two-thirds of the entire U.S. population in about a day’s drive,” Bowser said.

Just a couple counties to the east, the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County does a lot of lending through Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority (PIDA) programs.

“Since 2005, we have used it for everything from buying farms or transitioning them from parents to children to building broiler houses for chickens,” said John Biemiller, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County. “We have a whole support system of feed mills, equipment suppliers and even financial institutions such as Fulton Bank and others.”

The majority of the county’s farms focus on animal production, whether that means newt chickens at Tyson Foods Inc. in New Holland or Sauder’s Eggs in Lititz. The county’s farms also produce quite a bit of milk for Turkey Hill Dairy, The Hershey Co., and the New York and New Jersey metropolitan markets.

“Many of the fields you see tend to grow feed for animals,” Biemiller said. “We also have a decent number of hog operations for pork and even some duck houses, so it’s pretty diverse.”

Several large companies, such as Kellogg Co., Pepperidge Farm, Kunzler & Co. Inc. and Mars Inc. have locations in the county as well.

“We really are a hub for food processing,” he added.

Susan Eberly, president of the Lebanon Valley Economic Development Corp., said Lebanon County has used the state’s Small Business First (now part of PIDA) and First Industries Fund programs to help secure more than 50 agricultural loans for projects that range from expansion of existing poultry and dairy facilities to the purchase of machinery, equipment and even alpacas.

As one of the county’s largest operations, Bell & Evans recently built a new manufacturing facility and is planning additional poultry houses to help with the supply of chickens.

“The spinoff effect from this will be felt in many sectors throughout the community,” Eberly said.

York County is known for food processing and its factory tours of operations such as Snyder’s of Hanover and Wolfgang Candy Co. In recent years, the county has focused on services for new food-related businesses through its YorKitchen, a shared incubator located inside York’s Central Market downtown.

“Our agricultural sector is pretty diverse,” said Kenetha Hansen, vice president of economic development for the York County Economic Alliance. “We are a jack of all industries, so to speak.”

Many area counties have focused on agritourism, including Adams County, where agriculture and tourism are the two top industries. Robin Fitzpatrick, president of the Adams County Economic Development Corp. said soon-to-be-released results of a recent study show that the economic impact of the county’s historic fruit belt could be greater than expected.

“The dollars produced and jobs created through agriculture and tourism keep our attractive, rural quality of life because we are using the land to make things and add value,” she said.

Ellen Dayhoff, manager of the rural resource division in the Adams County Office of Planning, said the county helps entrepreneurs and business owners work within the limits of township ordinances and its farm preservation program to create secondary operations that include everything from corn mazes, pick-your-own operations and bed-and-breakfasts. Wine and cider tours, farmer’s markets and farm-to-table events also draw tourism to the county and support its agricultural base.

Adams County is home Knouse Foods Cooperative Inc., which produces products under brands such as Lucky Leaf and Musselman’s, as well as operations for Dr. Pepper, Cadbury and Winter Gardens Inc. One of the largest dairies in the northeastern United States — Mason Dixon Farms Dairy in Gettysburg — also calls the county home.

“A lot of people see this area as a pretty place to drive through in the spring and fall — or maybe they hear negative things about all the migrant workers,” Dayhoff said. “But I don’t think they have a clue what agriculture and agribusiness do for this area.”

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