by Abby Lowry, Assistant to the Chairman of the Board of The Wenger Group
Lancaster County has long been known for the many beautiful farms with fertile fields and animals grazing mile after mile. The agriculture community has played an integral part in the history of the area. The Wenger Group, currently in the third generation of our family, has a rich and long history in Lancaster County.
Before becoming involved in milling, Mel Wenger, my grandfather, owned the first self-serve grocery store in Lancaster County and was one of the only grocery stores in the United States to sell dog food. This relationship with Purina dog foods opened the door for Mel to purchase the Wolgemuth Mill in Rheems in 1944. Purina offered educational seminars that helped him transition into the feed milling profession. He often would tell me how much it helped him get his start in nutrition and formulation. Mel continued to broaden his education in nutrition and soon began developing his own animal nutrition formulas. Education is something that Wenger’s continues to support. We offer continuing education to our employees and scholarships to their children. Additionally, in January 2022 we will be launching the Wenger Animal Nutrition Academy to enhance all our team member’s knowledge of animal nutrition and how it impacts protein production.
The mill that started at only 1,800 tons per year in 1944 quickly began to grow. During this time period, feed was delivered by Wenger’s in bags. In that era, feed bags were made of cotton, and with the economic troubles during and shortly after the war, many families would use the bags to make clothes. Wenger’s would occasionally put feed in different bags so that the families could get different material. The popularity of the M.M. Wenger formulas was growing, and the amount of feed being produced was steadily increasing. With the thought of expanding in mind, Mel officially changed the name of the mill to Wenger’s Feed Mill in 1951.
Wenger’s Feed Mill was growing and producing double the amount of tons than when it first started. However, towards the end of 1952, a fire broke out in the warehouse. Thankfully the mill was spared, but it was a big loss. My grandpa was always a positive person; always trying to look at things in a constructive way, and he relied on his faith when times were rough. This was no exception. Mel used his keen business sense and positive focus to use this apparent setback as a turning point for his company. Up until this point, he had not made any significant changes to the mill, but he showed his entrepreneurial spirit in rebuilding. Mel replaced the burned wooden structure with a steel building that would better serve the company and incorporated new milling equipment and processes that would set the tone for the future in bulk feeds. The rebuilding showed his commitment to the young company and provided the opportunity to add two vertical mixers, which allowed for the production of more bulk feed volume.
In the 1960’s, the business was growing very quickly and expanding into commercial egg production and bulk feeds. Wenger’s Feed Mill has been a family business right from the start and the family was growing. Barry Shaw, my dad, and Mel’s son-in-law, joined the company in 1967. Growing up just outside Philadelphia, Barry had no agricultural experience to bring to the company. Mel challenged him to raise three steers on part of the company’s property. Barry quickly learned about animal nutrition! When the steers were ready, he and Mel butchered the steers and shared the meat with the employees. This was so appreciated by everyone that the following year they decided to do it again and increased the number of animals. This was the start of the Company’s annual meat bonus that we still offer to our team members today.
The Wenger Group has always been innovative. In the 1960’s, most ingredients were still delivered in bags and milling was a very manual process. Corn and soybean meal came in bulk and had to be added in batches using weigh buggies. Barry worked with a colleague to create the start of computer automation. They used an auger to run these larger ingredients from the bulk bin directly to the mixer. Using a timer, they were able to determine exactly how long they needed to run it to get the exact amount of corn and soybean meal into the mixer. This was the beginning of computerizing the feed lines.
Barry took a strong interest in poultry and how the birds’ dietary needs changed rapidly throughout their lives. He continued his education by working closely with many different professors and universities. Unique formulas were created that supported the birds during all stages of their lives. A proprietary layer and pullet record system was created in order to show how well the formulas worked. The Wenger Group was the first regional company to have an independent flock service team that supported a wide variety of producers, which led to the development of Dutchland Farms. Mel’s son, Al Wenger, worked for fourteen years with Dutchland to expand the company’s presence in the egg industry to help farmers get the best performance that they could. This quickly expanded into pullet growing, flock servicing and record keeping, and research.
By the early 1970’s, the M. M. Wenger formulas had become more popular for our customers than the Purina formulas, and Purina removed Wenger’s as a dealer. This meant that we had to give up all formulas and feeds that were related to Purina. This was a turning point for our company, and the decision was made to move to 100% commercial laying flocks served only by bulk feeds. Unlike some industries, the feed and agriculture industries do what they can to work together. Wenger’s used this time to refer customers that they would no longer be able to service to other mills.
The early 1980’s brought an agricultural disaster to the area. Avian Influenza, a highly contagious and deadly respiratory disease, hit southeastern Pennsylvania very hard and devastated the poultry industry. Wenger’s, because of our high concentration in poultry, was extremely affected along with our customers. Once again, Wenger team members showed leadership. A “crisis headquarters” was created in the Wenger’s office area. Bruce Limpert, another uncle, worked with industry leaders and state representatives to develop solutions to help the farmers affected by this tragedy. The government did come through with a plan to help the bird owners. My dad believed, “We’re all in it together. The stronger the Ag Industry is, the stronger we all can be.”
The Wenger Group shared the money that it received with the farm owners. We also realized the need for greater biosecurity and helped to develop biosecurity measures on farms and team members developed the first on-board sanitizing spray systems that are used on all our trucks today.
The Wenger Group has always had a commitment to research and development. Working with BASF, in 1996 Wenger’s was the first feed mill in the country to use Phytase to help to improve the animal’s utilization of phosphorous, which leads to less phosphorous excretion in manure which in turn helps the environment. The Wenger Group is committed to environmental safety and quality. We are also one of the only feed mills in North America to have triple ISO certification and have one of the most advanced laboratories in the Northeast region. That research and innovation focus has continued to today where we have helped one of our layer customers produce the first Hemp egg to be marketed in Pennsylvania.
The Wenger Group has grown substantially over the years to now produce over 2 million tons of feed, and the majority of it has been alongside the growth of our customers. My grandfather had said “Our growth has been at the result of service. There just isn’t anything, within reason, that we won’t do for our customers.” And this is something that we have strived to continue to do. On several occasions throughout our history, we have helped our customers and even our competitors so that their businesses can continue. The Wenger Group has recently invested in Hoober Feeds and L&K Mills to bring Wenger’s back into the dairy business and has joined forces with Risser Grain to be able to expand our focus in the Agronomy (grain, fertilizer and seed) area, which is critically important to producing quality animal nutrition.
The history of The Wenger Group is full of great team members that have helped to create the company it is today. Our family is excited about future possibilities and will continue to support our industry and serve our communities while seeking new and innovative ways to grow and evolve.
The Lancaster Chamber is proud to be celebrating its 150th Anniversary this year, alongside our business community. In the month of October, our content theme will be focused on Agriculture – highlighting the businesses and community leaders making an impact in the Ag Industry. This article was first printed in our 150th Commemorative Edition of Thriving Magazine, you can read more here: 150th Commemorative Edition of Thriving Magazine