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Bell & Evans prepares to open first-of-its-kind hatchery in the midstate

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Jun 23, 2017 7:28 AM
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Gov. Tom Wolf gives a thumbs up to Scott Sechler Sr., chairman and president Sechler Family Foods, Inc. after he cut the ribbon on Thursday, June 22, 2017 to open a new $40 million organic chicken hatchery in Fredericksburg, PA, the first of its kind in the United States, according to Bell & Evans. (Photo: Jeremy Long, Lebanon Daily News)

(Lebanon) -- Bell & Evans held a grand opening Thursday for what it is says is the first organic, humane, animal-welfare-focused chicken hatchery in the world.

Instead of dark and cramped wooden barns, the hatchery looks like a modern industrial building with bright colors and off-beat architecture.

Inside, eggs are placed in incubation units that are temperature and humidity-controlled. When they are ready to be born in the well-lighted hatchery, they are immediately given water, United States Department of Agriculture-certified organic pellets for food, and fresh air thanks to a specialized air circulation system.

The hatchery at 585 Chestnut Hill Road in Bethel Township will not be ready to take eggs for about another month, president Scott Sechler said. When it does open, the $40 million building will be capable of holding 1.5 million chicks.

Gov. Tom Wolf was among the dignitaries at Thursday's grand opening. He praised Bell & Evans for its innovation and for helping Pennsylvania farmers by creating demand for food that grows on their farms.

"They're also enabling the succession of one generation to another (on farms), something that's absolutely essential if we're going to keep our farms, if we're going to keep our open space, if we're going to preserve the heritage that we hold so dear right here in Pennsylvania," he said.

Many of the hatchery's unique designs were based on processes Sechler saw in person in the Netherlands, and he hired two Dutch companies to complete the project.

When the eggs first arrive, they will be fumigated with a disinfectant that does not include formaldehyde. They will incubate for 18 days, after which a machine checks for a heartbeat and other indicators of development. The eggs then go to a bright, LED-lighted room to hatch.

Even after hatching, the chicks receive special treatment. While they are transferred to a farm, they will ride in the same crate in which they were hatched inside a temperature and light-controlled truck.

"If the chicken has a good life, or a good environment to grow in, it will be good for us in the end," said Joost ter Heerdt, commercial director of HatchTech, which created parts of the hatchery.

Once there are chicks present, all employees and visitors will be required to shower before entering the facility for biosecurity reasons. The portions of the 160,000-square-foot building containing outgoing chicks are completely separated from the portions containing incoming eggs.

The facility will be the only one in the United States that provides food and water immediately after hatch, Bell & Evans spokeswoman Audrey King said. They are currently working with Pennsylvania Certified Organic to receive an organic certification for the hatchery.

Innovation is nothing new for the Fredericksburg-based chicken producer. The chickens produced at Bell & Evans are slaughtered humanely after being rendered unconscious by gas, they are air-chilled, and raised without antibiotics.

"Now, if you turned the news on, you would think Perdue just invented that," Sechler said.

Bell and Evans also isn't done growing.

Sechler said that he expects Bell & Evans will be able to break ground on a second processing plant on a hill above the hatchery this summer. The facility will help meet growing demand for products like their natural chicken nuggets made directly from sections of breast meat.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

Published in Lebanon, News

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