SLEEPY EYE — The announcement Tuesday that Del Monte would shutter its sweet corn and pea canning plant in Sleepy Eye is reverberating throughout the community.
“We had no idea it was coming. It was just a real unpleasant surprise,” said Kurk Kramer, economic development coordinator for the city.
“There’s going to be a big ripple effect. The employees, the farmers contracting thousands of acres to grow for them, the truckers, the silage company that took the waste, the school district, it just goes on and on.”
The California-based company announced the closure will take place in late October, eliminating all 69 full-time jobs and 294 seasonal positions.
Del Monte is also closing its plant in Mendota, Illinois, and selling its facilities in Cambria, Wisconsin, and Crystal City, Texas, consolidating production at its other facilities.
Kramer said Del Monte is one of the top employers in the area. Calendar producer BIC Graphics is the largest employer, with pork companies Chirstensen Farms and Schwartz Farms the other major businesses.
Kramer said things happened so fast there isn’t yet a plan to help employees or figure out how to move forward. He had a conference call Tuesday with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, Region Nine Development Commission and the federal EDA.
“We will get together again and develop a plan,” Kramer said.
“There’s so much we don’t know. I haven’t talked to a representative of Del Monte, so we don’t know their plan for the building or if there’s another company interested in it.”
Seneca, Green Giant and Birds Eye are the other three vegetable processors in southern Minnesota.
Kramer said the Del Monte plant is woven into the community’s identity. “Generations of people have worked there for summer jobs for college or for extra spending money. It’s a real shock for everybody.”
John Cselovszki, superintendent of Sleepy Eye Public Schools, worries about the effects of the closing in a district that has a 35% Hispanic enrollment.
“We identified 35 students whose families work at Del Monte, so that’s a concern. If the families don’t find other jobs in the community, what’s going to happen?”
And he said the closing touches many aspects of the community, down to its recent town festival.
“Buttered Corn Days was last weekend. What are we going to call it now?”
Cselovszki said residents are hoping someone will take over the plant. “We hope someone in a similar business might take up the baton and run with it in this very nice facility.”
Tim Schieffert, who was plant superintendent from 1989-99, said it was a great facility to work at.
“It was top-notch, everything was as good as it could be. It was a very well-run business. Del Monte’s a very reputable business,” Schieffert said.
“A lot of Sleepy Eye depended on Del Monte. I think just about everybody worked there at one time or another. Sleepy Eye will definitely miss Del Monte Foods.”
Kramer said the availability of jobs in the area helped steady the community’s population. Sleepy Eye’s population peaked at just shy of 3,700 in 2000 and now stands at about 3,400.
“More and more people took up residency here. Between Del Monte and BIC and Christensen and Schwartz farms, they could work year-round. The schools are going to take a hit if they move away,” Kramer said.
Each year, more than 300 area farmers contracted to grow corn and peas on more than 22,000 acres for the plant.
The Sleepy Eye plant, which opened in 1930, was in the past the beneficiary of consolidation by Del Monte.
In 1993 the company consolidated production from six of its plants into four and added canning capacity and sweet corn and pea acres in Sleepy Eye after closing plants in DeKalb, Illinois, and Burley, Idaho.