LANCASTER FARMING: Lebanon poultry firm filling organic niche moves to …

FREDERICKSBURG — A high-end Lebanon County chicken producer is in the midst of a major expansion that will triple its processing and packing space.

Bell Evans will open a new 160,000-square-foot plant early next year that will increase the company’s processing capacity by 20 percent.

For a company that usually grows by 10 to 14 percent a year, though, “that doesn’t last long,” said Scott Sechler, the company’s president.

To address that longer-term need for space, Bell Evans is settling on a second property next month that will eventually add 2.5 million birds per week to its capacity.

The company currently slaughters just under 1 million birds a week, Sechler said.

Construction of that larger building should start in 2017.

Both sites are within a few miles of the original Fredericksburg factory.

Plans for the expansion were announced in February.

The news came three weeks after Perdue said its Fredericksburg poultry processing plant, with 620 workers, and its Denver distribution center, with 30, were being closed this spring.

Bell Evans, though, is headed in the opposite direction.

The first new plant will cost $40 million plus equipment. It is too early to say what the second building will cost, Sechler said.

Bell Evans is known for its lines of antibiotic-free, organic and gluten-free chicken products sold at upscale grocery stores and restaurants.

All of the chickens and feed come from the United States.

Thanks partly to the rapid expansion of major customers like Wegmans and Whole Foods, Bell Evans has grown without adding any new customers for five years, Sechler said.

At first, “everybody kind of laughed” at the all-natural label. Now everyone is doing it, said Sechler, who bought the business in 1984 when he was 24 years old.

The company has 140 to 150 growers now and is adding 25 growers a year, a pace Sechler expects to continue as the new plants are built.

The first new plant will add 250 employees, and the second will add 1,200 to 1,500.

The company currently employs 1,200 people, making it the largest private employer in Lebanon County, Sechler said.

“Here we never lay people off. We always seem to be adding stuff,” Sechler said.

The building Bell Evans is currently constructing will have a European look.

A high-end product should come from a good-looking building, not one that looks like a factory, Sechler said.

Much of the processing equipment will come from the Netherlands and Germany, Sechler said.

Both new sites come with existing businesses that Bell Evans will keep open.

The first plot is home to Esther’s Restaurant, which Bell Evans is renting to its former owner.

Sechler plans to remodel the restaurant and its Swiss-style façade.

The second site currently houses the Keystone Rendering plant, an important company to have when your primary business needs a place to send its chicken bones, blood and innards, Sechler said.

Sechler credited Gov. Tom Corbett and the state Department of Community Economic Development, which offered the company more than $5 million in aid, for helping to make the project a reality.

“They are really pushing for jobs in this state,” Sechler said.

The state helped with the permitting process, gas, electric, a traffic light and whatever else the company needed, Sechler said.

The school board, township and county have all been supportive, and the county granted Bell Evans a tax abatement.

“We’re fortunate that we have so much support for poultry processing in Lebanon County,” Sechler said.

Still, the permitting process has slowed down the plant expansion projects.

Sechler said he bought the Esther’s Restaurant site five year ago and is only now getting to build.

“Money isn’t an issue. It’s bureaucracy,” he said.

The same holds true for farmers looking to build chicken houses. Permits that used to take six months now take up to two years.

“It puts a lot of farmers where they can’t even finish the project,” Sechler said.

Fulton Bank and a handful of Pennsylvania-based partner banks are financing the project.

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