It was the Monday after the annual town highlight of Buttered Corn Days when residents of Sleepy Eye, Minn., heard the shocking news. The town’s Del Monte vegetable canning plant, in operation since the 1930s, was shutting down at the end of the month.
“It was really weird,” said Deb Moldaschel, editor the Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. “If you’re going to wait, you could’ve waited until pack [was done], and they announced it immediately after [the festival].”
Del Monte played a major role in the festival each year, donating the corn for it. From city officials to the chamber of commerce, no one saw it coming.
“Right away, people were so surprised, like no. You never thought that would happen. We had the best workers, and they’ve been investing in good equipment over the years, like no, they can’t close,” Moldaschel recalled.
Employing 69 full-time and 294 seasonal employees, the plant canned peas and corn for Del Monte. Many of the seasonal workers were migrants, who came from places such as Texas for part of the year, lured by the potential for higher earnings and the ability to work overtime. Former employee Alejandro Guerra said most of these seasonal workers were Latino, like himself. He said the factory provided consistent, solid work each year, and people suddenly feared what a future without Del Monte held.
“It was not only surprising for me, but for many people. Before, we had everything set up there – all of a sudden we start over again,” he said.
Del Monte cited changing customer preferences as a main reason for shutting down the canning processing facility.
“We have had an extraordinary and mutually beneficial relationship with the people of Sleepy Eye and are grateful for having been a part of the local community. This decision was made after exhausting all other possibilities,” said company spokesman Tim Schramm. “Unfortunately, many food companies, ourselves included, continue to face similar business challenges, including declining center-store sales and rapidly evolving consumer preferences.
“Del Monte’s restructuring, which included the decision to close the Sleepy Eye facility, is a necessary step for Del Monte to remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace. Production will be transitioned to another production facility in the Unites States.”
The closure was part of a restructuring that also included closures for facilities in Cambria, Wisc.; Mendota, Ill.; and Crystal City, Texas. In November 2019, Del Monte announced it had sold its Wisconsin facility to Seneca Foods. The Minnesota and Illinois plants were also sold, though Schramm would not disclose the identity of the buyer or buyers. An inquiry to Seneca Foods was not returned.
Guerra, meanwhile, has found a new job at another major Sleepy Eye employer, Bic Graphic, which makes calendars for marketing and other promotional purposes. He was hired as an apprentice to learn the printing press – a big change from canning plant work – and admits that he’s relieved he didn’t have to leave the town that has become his home.
“I love Sleepy Eye. At some point, I kind of thought of finding a job out of town. That’s not going to happen if I’m here at Bic. I am in a good place.”
Leaders in town are trying to stay optimistic. They hope a new buyer for the plant means it will once again become operational and will continue to draw workers. Sleepy Eye City Manager Bob Elston said the closure won’t immediately impact their budgets – but next year, there may be some tough decisions.
“They were our second-largest almost everything: second-largest employer, tax base, utility customers, so yeah, it’s a big deal,” Elston remarked.
Besides government, local businesses and landlords are also worried. If a large portion of the 300 seasonal workers do not return, that will have an impact at the gas pump, grocery store and in rents being paid. The school district has already noticed a drop of about 35 to 40 students after migrant families affected by the closure left town early, prompting kids to tell their teachers that they won’t be coming back.
“This year, we had a lot of students in the elementary that would tell their teachers, ‘I’m not coming back next year. I’m never coming back.’ They’d say it with their eyes, with tears, because that’s all they know. They’ve been doing it every year,” said Nadia Crooker, a community liason for Sleepy Eye Public Schools.
Whatever happens with the plant, residents are already thinking ahead. Lynn Hacker owns a holiday tree and wreath farm in Sleepy Eye. This year, she was short about half of her usual seasonal workers. Usually, she’d be able to count on migrant workers to be around to work for a few weeks during the short holiday season.
“I have to make 30,000 wreaths with a lot less people,” she said last month. Hacker said that, if the workers don’t return, she will have to retool her process or even leave the business.
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