Cambria Del Monte canning plant escapes closure

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
The Del Monte plant in Cambria is a hub of activity with the sweet corn pack ramping up.

CAMBRIA – News that the Del Monte Foods plant will remain open is a welcome development for a small village in northeast Columbia County.

Cambria Village President Glen Williams said he learned last week that the Del Monte  Foods corn-packing operation in his hometown will be sold to Seneca Foods rather than shuttered like two other Del Monte vegetable processing plants in the Midwest.

California-based Del Monte Foods, the U.S. subsidiary of Del Monte Pacific, announced that it plans to close plants in Mendota, Illinois, and Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.

"This plant has been in the community for nearly a 100 years and thousands of people—my father, brother and I included—have held jobs there at one time or another," Williams said. "That job helped to put me through college."

Williams said the small village of nearly 800 people is dependent on its industrial assets tied to agricultural, including Didion Milling, Seneca Foods and the Del Monte canning plant.

Cambria was the epicenter of media attention just over two years ago when a combustible dust explosion at Didion rocked the little village around 11:30 p.m. on May 31, killing five of the 19 employees working the night shift, and reducing the corn grinding operation to rubble.

The small village of Cambria is dependent on agricultural industries, Del Monte, Seneca and Didion Milling.

Since then, Didion has constructed a new state-of-the-art mill, engineered for both safety and process efficiency.

"If this (Del Monte) plant had closed, it would not only impact the full-time and seasonal employees, but those who transport the produce in from the fields," Williams said.

Williams noted the Cambria Del Monte plant employs about 40-50 full-time employees and 280 seasonal employees that help process and can crops of peas, green beans and whole kernel corn.

The Mendota plant will cease operations this fall, impacting 500 workers. The Sleepy Eye plant will close at the end of the production season in 2020, where as many as 400 are employed.

Williams said that Del Monte had been a great community partner since buying the plant in 1999 from Agrilink Foods.

"They have always donated sweet corn to the Randolph Corn Carnival every year and helped out with area food drives," he said.

Tariffs on steel and aluminum have squeezed margins for food canning operations, forcing many to cut costs by selling off or closing operations.

In a statement from the company, Del Monte Pacific CFO Parag Sachdeva alluded to the Trump administration's tariff on steel and aluminum imports, saying "headwinds including rising metal packaging prices and impact of tariffs imposed by the U.S.government".

Seneca Foods which is located on the other side of the village across the railroad tracks from Didion Milling is one of nine plants operating in Wisconsin. Other locations include Baraboo, Clyman, Cumberland, Gillett, Hancock, Mayville, Oakfield and Ripon. 

Seneca Foods Corporation released its first quarter financial results at the end of June, announcing that its net sales have increased 8.5% to $264.9 million.

“During the first quarter, we began to see improved results from our extensive restructuring undertaken last year. We expect the improvements to continue as the year progresses.” stated Kraig Kayser, President and Chief Executive Officer.

Calls to Seneca Foods corporate office were not returned by deadline.

Seneca is the new owner of the Del Monte plant in Cambria, according to village of Cambria officials.

According to the Del Monte's website, the canning operation in Cambria was built in 1920 by the Columbia Canning Company and sold 33 years later to Consolidated Foods.

Ten years after it acquired the plant, Consolidated Foods merged operations with the Michigan Fruit Company. Following the merger, the plant expanded, adding a warehouse, field shop and corn building.

In 1973, the plant was purchased by the Larsen Company which added another building in 1974 to include bean production to the company's output.

Dean Foods, which purchased the plant in 1986, spearheaded a major expansion by increasing the plant's corn processing capacity and adding new equipment.

The company again changed hands in 1998 when Agrilink Foods purchased the plant.