Del Monte closure stuns Sleepy Eye, town's future uncertain

Cody Nelson
Minnesota Public Radio News
Farmer Troy Windschitl stands for a portrait on his farm outside of Sleepy Eye, Minn. Windschitl is a third generation farmer who has grown peas and sweet corn for Del Monte for over 20 years.

SLEEPY EYE, Minn. (AP) — Troy Windschitl has grown peas and sweet corn for more than 20 years. Just like his dad and grandpa did for 40 years before him.

But that could come to an end as early as this fall when the Windschitl family and other farmers here lose the buyer for those crops. In a stunning announcement last month, California-based Del Monte Foods said it plans to close its sweet corn and peas canning plant just off Main Street here in October.

Windschitl, 44, counts on Del Monte sales for about 15% of his income. Hundreds of others near this tight-knit town of 3,500 people depend on the plant, too. It employs over 360 people and the economic impact of the plant closure will ripple through the area for years to come, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

If you've eaten Del Monte canned corn or peas, they likely came from the brick building on the west end of town here. Each year, the company buys more than 22,000 acres of peas and sweet corn from at least 300 farmers making it the company's largest pea and corn producer, according to Del Monte.

Del Monte shocked Sleepy Eye when its corporate headquarters announced it was shuttering the plant, laying off all the workers and taking away a staple of Sleepy Eye culture since 1930. At City Hall, the plant closing wasn't even on the list of concerns.

"It came as a complete surprise to us," Mayor Wayne Pelzel said. "We're struggling with things like housing and day care, child care, and those are issues that remain on our forefront. "But not anywhere on our watch-out list was Del Monte's closing."

Such a departure might sound the death knell for this small Midwestern town. But Sleepy Eye leaders said they believe their town will pull through the loss and that the area is poised to recover. Still, many residents and leaders hold out hope that a new company will buy the plant.

Rumors of prospective buyers have swirled in town for the past week. Seneca Foods representatives visited the Del Monte facility last month, according to several employees and Sleepy Eye leaders.

"We're remaining cautiously optimistic that something is gonna happen," said Kurk Kramer, Sleepy Eye's economic development authority coordinator. "What's gonna happen? Well, we really don't know yet. We don't have any answers because we don't know just exactly what the future holds."

A spokesperson for Del Monte declined to say whether the company is in talks with any potential buyers. New York-based Seneca Foods, which is North America's leading provider of packaged fruits and vegetables, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When Del Monte announced it was closing the Sleepy Eye plant in AUgust, it said it would also shutter facilities in Mendota, Illinois and Cambria, Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin State Farmer newspaper reported last month that Seneca is buying that plant from Del Monte. In July, Seneca acquired a Florida-based candied fruit business, according to a company press release.

No matter the outcome in Sleepy Eye, Del Monte's departure will change the town.

"If Del Monte closes and these people that work at Del Monte lose their jobs and have to move elsewhere, there isn't much for (jobs in) Sleepy Eye for them to work," said Mary Lee Schotzko, a nearly 60-year Sleepy Eye resident. "I think a lot of people will leave because there's nothing else here."

Del Monte has historically been one of the town's largest employers. The plant is a draw for seasonal and migrant workers, who fill about 294 jobs at the plant.

Piles of sweet corn are pushed around by a tractor before being processed at the Del Monte plant in Sleepy Eye, Minn.

Many rely on the plant in one way or another. It's been a constant for nearly 90 years.

So has the annual Sleepy Eye Buttered Corn Days. The company donates truckloads of sweet corn to the festival so the town can gather for free food, music and a weekend of celebration.

Everything was normal during this summer's Corn Days, which wrapped up Aug. 18.

But just three days later, Del Monte full-time employees were called to a meeting.

During the busy packing season, big staff meetings are rare. Nobody knew what it was about, according to two Del Monte workers who asked to remain anonymous because they weren't authorized to speak.

Some workers thought a raise might be in store, they said. For the more than 200 seasonal workers, pay can start as low as $9 an hour. One seasonal employee who has worked at Del Monte for about 20 years said she makes just under $12 an hour. The job has no health insurance or benefits. Fifty-hour weeks are common during pack season, she said.

Instead of more money in their checks, though, they were given a timeline to their pink slip.

Del Monte said the plant closure is part of a restructuring that is "a necessary step for us to remain competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace." Layoffs, they were told, will begin in October and will continue over the following 11 months.

Greg Longstreet, chief executive officer of Del Monte Foods Inc., told Bloomberg News in May that the company is moving away from canned goods. He estimated non-canned goods would eventually produce 40% of the company's revenue.

Back in Sleepy Eye, the closure announcement hit Del Monte workers hard, they said.

Inside the plant, "you would see sadness everywhere," said one employee. And in the week since, many are beginning to look for work elsewhere.

Christensen Farms, one of North America's largest pork producers, is two miles out of town. There's a BIC facility within Sleepy Eye's city limits that makes calendars and other promotional products. It hires many seasonal workers.

But many area employers require English-speaking applicants or those with higher education levels, which pose a challenge for some Del Monte seasonal workers.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, or DEED, said it's working with Del Monte to help its employees through its rapid response team so they can land on their feet when the plant closes.

DEED staff, including some geared specifically to migrant and Spanish-speaking workers, will be available to all laid off workers. They'll be able to get career counseling, help finding work, and money to help pay urgent bills and for training to help them get a new job.

Despite the help available, the two seasonal workers said they expect many of their peers to leave town and make a new life elsewhere.

The Del Monte cannery in Sleepy Eye, Minn., processes sweet corn and peas. In a stunning announcement, California-based Del Monte Foods said it plans to close its sweet corn and peas canning plant just off Main Street here in October.

"Everyone is gonna start all over again," one worker said.

Sleepy Eye residents don't need to look further than 55 miles northeast for an example of what happens to a town that needs to start over.

Le Sueur was known as the "Valley of the Jolly Green Giant." The Green Giant company canned peas and corn and employed hundreds of people at its headquarters in town.

Then in 1995, the plant closed. The jobs left.

Brigid Tuck lives in Le Sueur and works as a senior economic impact analyst for the University of Minnesota Extension. She said public school enrollment dropped once the plant closed, and it's been an uphill battle to figure out what life is like after Green Giant.

"For us, it's been kind of about rewriting the narrative of who we are as a community because for a long time we were Green Giant," Tuck said, "and sort of replacing that identity and learning who we are as a community now. (It) has been a struggle to rebrand itself."

Today, she said, Le Sueur has plenty of manufacturing jobs and is headquarters to Cambria countertops.

It remains Green Giant country, to an extent, too. A giant wooden sign depicting the Green Giant towers over the Minnesota River valley town. The Giant is the public school mascot.

But the only Green Giant jobs are at a small research facility that employs fewer than a dozen people. Its time as a classic company town is history.

Talk to just about anyone in Sleepy Eye and they have a connection to the Del Monte plant. Many worked there at some point, if only as a summer job while in high school or college.

Mike Mason runs Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, his sprawling two-story shop on the half mile stretch of Main Street hosting most of the town's businesses. Nearby is the newspaper office, a couple of antique shops, some bars, a furniture store and a Hardee's drive-through restaurant.

Mason worked for Del Monte for 30 years. He spent 19 years at the plant before his stained glass work got big enough to become a full-time job.

He's still connected to the plant. He rents apartments above his shop to seasonal Del Monte workers who spend winters in Texas.

Mason doesn't mince words about what a future looks like without Del Monte.

"It's going to be a hell of a big deal," he said. "Where else do you go in Sleepy Eye for another job?"

He thinks his tenants will end up moving, leaving him out $900 a month.

Others, too, will feel the sting of the closure.

Sleepy Eye Public Schools' typical enrollment is about 550 students, 35 of whom come from Del Monte families, said superintendent John Cselovszki. If all those families leave, Cselovszki said, it'll cost the district about $100,000 in state per-pupil funding.

That's a significant chunk of its $6.5 million budget.

"$100,000 buys you a couple of teachers," Cselovszki said.

Del Monte props up Sleepy Eye in indirect ways, too. It's the top user of utilities during packing season in late summer and early fall. It's among the largest taxpayers in town.

Windschitl, the farmer, said he doesn't have another buyer for his sweet corn and peas. Del Monte crops make up about 80 of his 550 acres. He'll have to convert his farm exclusively to soybeans and field corn, which would likely make less money.

Corn and soybeans grow in a field outside of Sleepy Eye, Minn. Troy Windschitl has grown peas and sweet corn for more than 20 years. Just like his dad and grandpa did for 40 years before him.

He expects other farms to do the same, flooding grain elevators in the region with more of the cheaper crops.

"And it's already a tough market to move that the way it is," Windschitl said.

The Windschitl family's three-generation relationship with Del Monte is common here, and the loss stings.

"It's been around here for as long as I remember," Windschitl said. "Been with 'em a long time. It'll be a big change, that's for sure."