Wampler’s goes green

by Bernard Shire
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Wampler
Ted Wampler Jr. and his son Trae are proud of the company's innovations in creating sustainable energy.
 
“Environmental responsibility” and “sustainability” are trendy catch phrases that tend to get thrown around a lot by food companies these days. Wampler’s Farm Sausage Co. is not just talking the talk when it comes to energy generation. It has committed the resources and implemented the level of sophisticated technology that is rare among most family-owned, mid-size sausage producers.

Wampler’s, based in Lenoir City, Tennessee, is using advanced science and technology to not only take giant steps toward removing itself from the energy grid, but also operating in a way that allows it to put even more energy back onto the grid than it takes off to run its operations.

And while innovative technology today has a lot to do with how Wampler’s is running its business in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way, a lot of this has to do with the Wampler family itself -- the people who run the company, including third-generation president and CEO Ted Wampler Jr. In fact, it’s not surprising at all that Ted Wampler Jr. would get involved in taking steps to moving his company off the energy grid. It’s also not a surprise that he would put energy-saving technology to work, technology that he believes can “change the world.”

There’s no doubt that Wampler’s Farm Sausage has come a long way since 1937 when it got started in a small tin building by the creek in rural east Tennessee. Riley Wampler, Wampler’s grandfather, was a farmer who started slaughtering hogs and then selling his pork products door-to-door. After World War II, he suggested to his son Ted (Sr.), joined by family member Harry, that they re-open the slaughter house, with money raised by picking blackberries and selling fish bait. They began selling their pork to mom and pop stores.

Today, the privately held company has annual sales of $50 million and about 180 employees. President and CEO Ted Wampler Jr. expects the company will quadruple the current numbers. Wampler’s makes award-winning, whole-hog sausage products, including sausage rolls, patties and links, and grillers.

Wampler had earned a degree in business management from Tennessee Tech Univ., a logical educational step to prepare to take over his family’s meat processing business. But as he says, when he finished school he was not at all sure he was going to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps and run the company – or even be involved in it.

“It was not a foregone conclusion for me at all,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, I was going to be a builder – I worked with my Mom’s brother a lot in construction.” His cousin had a fast-food restaurant and Wampler worked at the restaurant to help. With the restaurant business growing 10-fold over the next four years, suddenly everything changed. Wampler knew he would be involved in the family business.

Seeking out solar

But there’s a lot more to Wampler than that. Eight years ago, in 2009, Wampler, his wife Sherri and their children – (Sherri and son Trae [Ted III] work for the company) -- began thinking about what they could do to make the business more energy-independent. At the time, there was a lot of interest in solar power. “We installed a 30 kilowatt (kW) rooftop solar panel array as a pilot project, and right away, our energy costs started dropping,” the elder Wampler says. “It was successful, so we expanded on that with an on-site 500 kW five-acre site that just dropped our energy costs tremendously. Today, that power output (530 kW solar panel array) feeds clean, renewable energy back onto the grid, and the company is being reimbursed by the local utility board for green power generation. In this case, the company is producing energy, not using it.

But that’s not the end of the energy innovations. Today, Wampler’s Farm Sausage is now home to the very first commercial installation of Proton Power’s revolutionary cellulose-to-hydrogen power (CHyP) clean energy system. How does this work? To explain it very simply, the system will power the net zero grid connected company with hydrogen made from biomass – natural material like switchgrass, sawdust, forest waste – all natural. This new equipment is being joined by even more solar power with a new solar installation over the next three months – a 101-kW operation that is actually “behind the meter,” meaning every kilowatt hour generated reduces the amount of electricity Wampler Sausage pulls through their meter, and as a result, reduces the company’s electric bill.

The company now has more than 2,000 solar panels. But the new cellulose-to-hydrogen technology now generates most of the energy consumed at the plant. “Eventually, it will bring us to net zero energy use – we will generate as much or more energy as we use, with water and biochar (a fine charcoal valuable as an additive to soil) as the only byproducts,” Wampler says.

For these endeavors, Wampler and his company have won numerous awards, recognizing his innovations and the use of more sustainable alternatives to provide energy for his company.

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