VONORE, Tenn. — After years of planning and research and work a company in Vonore is about to start producing environmentally-friendly packaging.
The manufacturer depends on local farmers for its raw material.
It is a win-win partnership.
Shane Williams is a fourth generation farmer who raises beef cattle. He also produces hay to feed his herd in Riceville.
And now he and other East Tennessee farmers grow fields full of switchgrass to sell to Genera in nearby Vonore.
"This is a natural move because we've got the infrastructure to already have hay, and switchgrass is basically hay. And so to me, there's an opportunity to diversify income streams. So instead of having all your eggs in one basket. I'll get my eggs in two baskets."
Egg cartons are something Genera could create.
The company produces a plant-based pulp made into packaging for food.
"Primarily food service products things like takeout containers, clamshell takeout containers, and disposable plates and bowls. Things that today would typically be produced out of Styrofoam or plastic or a non renewable source," Dr. Kelly Tiller explained.
She is President and CEO of Genera. She's also a former professor at the University of Tennessee with a PhD in agricultural economics as well as a business background.
Now she's leading Genera, one of two companies in the United States making this type of product. It comes from a tree-free source. The tall, thick grass is renewable and sustainable. The packaging can be composted.
"We're really excited about the growth opportunity. The demand is almost insatiable for these products," she said. "It's been several years in the making. We've been working with local farmers for a number of years to prepare for this. And then we've been working to construct and start up our manufacturing facility for the last 18 months now. So we are just now at the point of initial startup and operations and plan to be having commercial product ready to sell before the end of the year."
The relationship with farmers is critical.
"It's very important that we are close to the farmers who are supplying the raw materials that's one of our main costs of production, and the farther you have to transport that hay type material, the more costly it is," she said.
Shane Williams said, "Once you get established, it's a crop that you don't have to replant every year. So that was kind of appealing to me, and some my farm is kind of steep, on hills."
He is pleased with the partnership.
"I feel like it's a way to diversify the farm, diversify income. And also I feel kind of passionate about what they're trying to do. I mean they're trying to create a biodegradable product. And I think long term, that's a good option," he said.
It's a good option for local farmers, a local company, and our environment.