RHEEMS, Pa. — Jim Adams was a city kid. He grew up in Reading, Pa., went to elementary and high school there, and often visited the little store on the corner of the block where he lived. He was friendly with the store owner’s nephews, five of them, who lived on his block.
One of the nephews was two years older than Adams, and when that nephew got his driver’s license, he’d often take Adams and the gang to the store owner’s little farm in nearby Strausstown, where there were horses for riding, and fancy chickens and pigeons for admiring.
And those fancy chickens were the first steps on a path that led Jim Adams to his present job, president and CEO of Wenger Feeds, and to his newest assignment in the business world, chairman-elect of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Interviewed at Wenger headquarters, Adams acknowledged that it may seem unusual for the chamber’s chairman to be from the ag community. But that is not to say that the chamber overlooks the industry that dominates the county’s economy and business community.
“The chamber is a member-driven organization,” Adams said, “and there just aren’t that many members who are strictly production ag or ag related.”
He noted that the chamber does sponsor ag issues forums six times a year, holds an annual ag banquet every November and sponsored an annual family farm days at Oregon Dairy in Manheim Township.
About a year-and-a-half ago, a group made up of farmers and agribusiness people formed the Lancaster County Agriculture Council to both work with the chamber and develop their own advocacy programs.
Adams’ interests range beyond agriculture, and he said he’d especially like to see more manufacturing return to Lancaster.
“We’ve been losing manufacturing, and I don’t like to see that,” he said. “I like making things, things you can see and touch. “
Adams said the chamber and the county’s Economic Development Co. are working to attract manufacturers. Small business is important to the county’s economy, he said, “but if you have a manufacturing plant, you might have hundreds or even thousands of employees.”
That said, agriculture has been the focus of this city kid’s career. His goal in high school was not to run a feed company, but to be a veterinarian. His first job out of high school was in a plastics factory just outside Reading. His second was with the U.S. Army, where he served three-and-a-half years as a veterinary tech at Fort Dix, N.J., taking care of the Army’s own dogs as well as those of military families and retirees.
From there he went to Penn State where, from 1978 to 1980, he earned a bachelor’s degree in poultry technology and management.
When he graduated, he was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary program, which meant he was looking at four more years of tuition, books and a long daily commute.
“By that time, we had two kids,” he said, “and I wasn’t wild about the drive to Philadelphia. I came to Wenger Feeds to set up their quality assurance program, started peeling back layers of the onion, and in 2007 I became president. I’ve been here now for 32 years.”
After he took the job at Wenger Feeds, Adams and his wife, Molly, had another child. All three are now grown and doing well. Tim, a former Marine, is studying psychology at California’s San Diego State University. Their daughter Molly is general manager and buyer for Pappagallo and Details, two upscale boutiques in Lancaster. Their youngest daughter, Kelly, is an elementary school teacher in Lancaster. Molly Adams continues to work as a nurse at Norlanco Family Medicine in Elizabethtown.
The Wenger Feeds business traces its roots to 1944 and the founder, Mel Wenger, who had a successful business selling bagged feed out of his self-service grocery store in Elizabethtown, a short distance from where the Rheems mill and offices are located.
A feed salesman coaxed Wenger into buying that mill in Rheems. Today, the only feed bags left in the business are historic artifacts hanging on the office walls.
Wenger Feeds today has seven mills, 250-300 employees and sells some 3,000 formulations of poultry and swine rations to producers in an area that covers south-central and southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.
Poultry feed — layers, broilers, turkeys and game birds — accounts for about 80 percent of the business. The company’s single largest customer is a hog producer who goes through two 28-ton trailer loads of feed every day, but the overall swine business accounts for just 20 percent of sales.
Adams has confidence that Wenger Feeds is a sustainable enterprise because he believes that his company’s feed customers, particularly those in Lancaster County, are sustainable into the foreseeable future.
He said he likes the county’s productive soils, the nearness to markets, the work ethic and the infrastructure that supports agriculture. And he likes the fact that Lancaster County is the national leader in farmland preservation. He likes that it is working farmland.
Adams sees a definite tension between the rural and urban parts of Lancaster County, but he believes municipal planners have done a good job of resolving problems and keeping the county an attractive place to live.
People like to live surrounded by green space, whether it’s being farmed or not, Adams said. “But I don’t want to see Lancaster County turn into a big green museum, with cardboard cows in empty meadows. I want to see working farms, producing safe, affordable food for a growing population.”