The wind giveth and the wind taketh away — that may not be how the Bible verse reads, but to employees at Cooper Farms, this version holds a measure of truth beyond the Bible verse

As the company celebrates 75 years of “innovation and vision” in 2013, it’s challenging to not marvel at how Cooper Farms has come full circle since a natural disaster attempted to knock the company off the rails a decade ago.
In the early 2000s, Cooper Farms was riding a wave of expansion and success — building upon the skyrocketing popularity of turkey with consumers and increasing demand for its own product based on its reputation as an innovator in food safety and quality.
In November 2002, however, the wind taketh away. A tornado destroyed Cooper Farms’ Van Wert, Ohio, cooked-meats processing facility, and the entire plant, with the exception of the ovens in the center of the building, had to be torn down and rebuilt.
Fully aware of the challenges that the original plant posed, Cooper Farms set out to build a cutting-edge facility in these areas — one that better-prepared it for future expansion.
“In the old plant, we kind of dealt with what we had,” says Greg Cooper, plant manager, Van Wert. “We had auditors come through, and we knew what our challenges were, so when we designed [the new plant], we got our production flow set up a lot better.”
Through construction of the new plant, Cooper Farms didn’t lose a single customer, leaning on other processors in the industry to keep up production and supply its customers with the same quality product.
Since then, Cooper Farms has come full circle, and today, the wind giveth. After two major expansions of the cooked-meats facility (which re-opened in 2003) and numerous innovations around its entire vertically integrated turkey-production system, Cooper Farms now produces its own electrical power via three wind turbines on site at Van Wert.
At presstime, Cooper Farms was the largest privately owned net-metered site in the state of Ohio, producing the most kilowatt hours by an individual that is not a commercial setting.
Yet, wind power is just one sentence in the book of initiatives adopted by Cooper Farms in its 75 years — and it certainly is not the only recent innovation the company has incorporated.

Rebuilding the right way

Walking through Cooper Farms’ Van Wert facility, one can find a wide variety of advancements that maintain both food- and worker-safety standards. From handling of product baskets for the high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) machines, to treating slicing logs with ozone as a lethality step as they enter the clean-room slicing cells, Cooper Farms has not been shy about investing in technologies and processes that improve its product and work environment.
When Cooper Farms rebuilt its Van Wert facility, it followed through on grand designs to handle product and keep raw and cooked product and employees physically separated. The plant’s ovens were the centerpiece around which the plant was built — and the physical wall between the two sides of production.
“We had 10 years of [prior experience with the facility] and a good concept of how it could be done better, so the 2002 rebuild really improved production flow and efficiency,” explains Eric Ludwig, director of corporate development & purchasing. “[Product] comes in one door and it goes sequentially step-by-step through the process till it ends at the back door and out the door — it never goes back and forth, and we don’t waste any movements and motions. … We built the building around the process.”
Cooper Farms used insulated panels for the walls, to help conserve energy put into refrigeration, and also tied refrigeration into a computer control system that monitors the facility and sequences compressors based on need. The system also can cycle fans based on plant temperatures. Brad Alspaugh, maintenance/projects engineer, says the PLC-controlled technology has held up well over the years.
“Actually, when we built the addition in 2010, we added a second engine room, and in that second engine room we incorporated the same system,” he explains. “We don’t necessarily staff the plant 24/7, but the program will monitor the system and trigger an alarm to call us and have us dial in to see what the issue is.”
The new Van Wert facility was positive-air pressurized, with four stages of pressurization designed to keep airborne contaminants from infiltrating the plant’s atmosphere. Furthermore, Cooper Farms installed walk-on ceilings to house the utilities outside of the processing area and allow for easier maintenance without significantly disrupting production time.
In subsequent expansions in 2008 and 2010, Cooper Farms added a significant amount of square footage to the Van Wert facility, including 50,000 square feet for six new clean-room slicing cells. At the time of The National Provisioner’s visit, Cooper Farms was operating slicing lines in three of those rooms and an HPP line in another, leaving two remaining rooms open for future development.

Powering up

In early 2009, Cooper Farms began putting together a list of areas in which the company could gain some sustainability advantages. On that list was replacement of the metal halide lamps that were installed when the plant reopened in 2003. Cooper Farms went about replacing those and reaped some financial rewards for its energy-efficiency initiatives (See “Lighting the way” on page 22).
Meanwhile, the company had been approached by multiple companies about leasing its property to erect wind farms in order to help the state meet its renewable power-generation goals.
“If you look across the landscape there are hundreds of [turbines] now, whereas two years ago they weren’t here,” Ludwig says. “Companies approached us several times [about leasing], and we made a decision to look at what would happen if we utilized the wind resource ourselves.”
Cooper Farms ended up buying two 1.5-megawatt turbines in order to cover about 60% of the plant’s power needs. However, Ludwig says, the power demand quickly increased, and Cooper Farms installed a third turbine in December 2012.
“We have three 1.5-megawatt wind-turbine generators creating about 75 percent of the power needs of this plant in one year’s time,” he adds. The turbines have an 87-meter (285-foot) wingspan, and the blades spin atop 85-meter (275-foot) tall towers. Alspaugh says installation and upkeep has worked out well for Cooper Farms thus far.
“We didn’t have to install any extra buildings; the turbines themselves come with the transformers and everything is part of the turbine,” he says. “We had to install some connection lines from the turbines to a central switch gear, and then tie it into our grid, and we had to put up a few more power pulls, but we were going to do that anyway because of the 2010 addition.”
Cooper Farms worked with the local municipalities and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to properly site the turbines, and also kept as much of the work and material localized as possible, says Dale Hart, director of food processing.
“The steel and blades came from the United States; the generator came from China; and we used about 85 percent of the labor from the Ohio workforce,” he says. “So we worked with local people closely for the building of the foundation and erection of the turbines.”

Added investments, surging growth

Cooper Farms also has invested effort and capital into improving ergonomics for its employees. The company eliminated the need for employees to lug carts of injected product around the tumbling/injection rooms, designing a vacuum system that pumps the products from holding tubs directly into the tumblers via a large hose.
Also, the baskets that carry products through the HPP machine were always a chore for employees to move around the facility, so the company engineered a “revolver-style” rack that holds the baskets and allows for easier loading and unloading on the HPP machine.
Cooper Farms found a way to reduce its material usage on the plastic pan molds it uses to hold product — saving 80% a year by washing and re-using the molds rather than trashing them after one use. The company installed a specific wash system in order to clean the molds.
In the realm of food safety, Cooper Farms added in 2004-2005 a significant lethality step at the Van Wert facility, using ozone to treat slicing logs before they entered the clean-room slicing cells. Ludwig says Cooper was at the level food safety where taking this extra step made sense.
“There are only a few [processors] who are at the level we are, with a clean-room [setup],” he explains. “So, when you send a product into that clean room, you want it to be a clean product — we are taking that step to say that what is received in that clean room has had a lethality step applied to it.”
The Van Wert facility isn’t the only area in which Cooper Farms is making significant improvements. Up and down the vertically integrated chain, the company has invested in new technology and new ideas to be more efficient and improve quality.
On the live side, Cooper Farms recently converted five of its 16 breeding and livestock facilities from propane to natural gas. On the flip side, Cooper Farms has gone “back to basics” over the last couple of years with regard to egg production, retrofitting seven of its nine farms with new nests.
“We had a lot of automated egg-gathering equipment that maybe wasn’t the best for the turkeys,” says Ludwig. “We did a lot of work converting back to a manual method of egg gathering, but also redesigned the turkey nests to be more durable and ergonomically friendly for all the employees who have to do the egg-gathering.”
Cooper Farms’ hog division also was growing, with the company’s sixth sow farm opening in April, adding capacity to that segment. Cooper Farms raises the hogs and then sells them to processors.
Although company founder Virginia Cooper passed away in late February at the age of 91, the Cooper legacy lives on through the second through fourth generations of the family who are working to keep the innovation and vision culture thriving at Cooper Farms.
With many projects underway to lead the way in food safety, quality, sustainability and employee welfare, Cooper Farms appears to have put itself in front of the same tailwinds that carried it to new heights over its first 75 years. The corporate culture remains strong, and as technology advances, expect to see Cooper Farms adopting those cutting-edge initiatives.

Lighting the way



As part of The National Provisioner’s cover story on Cooper Farms’ 75th anniversary, Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of the magazine, spoke with Al Kohler, program coordinator for AEP Ohio, to discuss two significant energy-savings changes Cooper Farms made in its Van Wert, Ohio, processing plant, and the incentives and benefits that the company earned for those improvements to its cooked-meats facility.
When Cooper Farms rebuilt its Van Wert facility in 2003 (after everything except the smokehouses were destroyed by a tornado the year prior), it installed 450-watt metal halide lighting throughout the original 50,000-square-foot facility. At the time, says Eric Ludwig, director of corporate development & purchasing for Cooper Farms, it was the best technology available.
“We took some time and effort to think about sanitation, efficiency of the lights and maintenance longevity,” Ludwig explains. “So we picked good lights at the time, [but] over 10 years, more improvements had come along to the marketplace. … it was more efficient than other options, as fluorescent hadn’t quite risen to the level of where it is now.”
In two subsequent expansions of the plant (2008 and 2010), Cooper Farms used T5 fluorescent lamps, and last year decided to upgrade the original metal halide lighting to similar T5 lamps.
“The metal halide lighting … had a long start-up time and was hard to control — they basically turn on and off,” says Kohler. “The T5s have a better-quality light, their lifespan is longer, and they’re very easy to control, where you can use occupancy sensors or dimmers.”
After becoming familiar with AEP Ohio’s Business Incentives Program, which provides incentives for energy-efficiency upgrades to current equipment, Cooper Farms scheduled an electrical contractor to replace 162 metal halide lamps with the T5 lamps. Also as part of the incentives program, Cooper Farms had a variable-speed drive installed on the 200-hp air compressor for the facility.
Because of the food-safety demands of the business, electricians installed the lamps during the late-night hours, when the plant was idle, and the VSD on the air compressor in one weekend. Contractors also used Cooper Farms’ lifts and equipment for their work, limiting the amount of “foreign” objects that would be entering the sensitive environment that Cooper Farms works diligently to keep clean and safe.
According to AEP Ohio, the moves resulted in approximately 330,000 kWh in annual electric savings and more than $22,000 in incentives paid to Cooper Farms. Kohler says the change in lighting alone saved the company a significant amount of energy usage, but given its history, he isn’t surprised that Cooper Farms traveled down this path.
“Energy-efficiency is engrained in their being at Cooper Farms,” he adds.