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Will Del Monte sell? Farmers and workers remain in limbo

Uncertain times at Mendota

Since 1949, the vegetable processing plant has been a big employer and a focal point in Mendota. Once operated by Cal Pak, the plant operated by Del Monte had 110 full-time employees and more than 350 seasonal employees in August when the company announced it would close the plant by June 2020. Del Monte has had an impact on the community that goes far beyond direct employees, such as sponsoring the Sweet Corn Festival and providing income to farmers and truckers.
Since 1949, the vegetable processing plant has been a big employer and a focal point in Mendota. Once operated by Cal Pak, the plant operated by Del Monte had 110 full-time employees and more than 350 seasonal employees in August when the company announced it would close the plant by June 2020. Del Monte has had an impact on the community that goes far beyond direct employees, such as sponsoring the Sweet Corn Festival and providing income to farmers and truckers.

MENDOTA — City officials this week confirmed that representatives of a company that packages vegetables and fruit have taken a look at the plant Del Monte plans to close next year in Mendota.

It’s a glimmer of hope, but little more than that, for city officials, contract farms and hundreds of employees.

Representatives from New York-based Seneca Foods flew in to Illinois Valley Regional Airport in Peru to check out the Mendota plant, the NewsTribune was told by both Mendota Mayor David Boelk and an airport staff member.

However, Boelk said corporation leaders have not talked with the city, so he does not know if Seneca — which has packaging plants in Princeville, Ill., and Janesville, Wis., and bought one of Del Monte’s smaller Cambria, Wis., facilities — is even interested in the plant in Mendota. The NewsTribune’s calls to Seneca Foods were not returned by press time.

Mendota Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Katie Fox said the chamber has received no inquiries from parties interested in purchasing the Del Monte plant.

Mendota economic development director and city clerk Emily McConville said a couple of parties have made inquiries to the city, but she does not know about their intentions or the extent of their interest.

McConville said the Mendota facility has great value because it is modernized and the structures are “food-grade buildings.”

Plus, the site has rail siding as well as access to the main BNSF rail line.

Still, city officials are uncertain about the future and the impact after Del Monte locks the doors.

“We’re still digesting it,” McConville said of Del Monte’s announcement.

Still, many people in the city hang on to a blind hope that a new employer can go in and take right over where Del Monte leaves off.

“It’s a viable building. It’s all set up to go,” Boelk said.

While he’s hopeful the building will sell, he also has seen a corporation close a Mendota plant — such as Motor Wheel — and more or less “forget about it.”

In that case, the city and schools received taxes on the industrial property for several years, but the jobs were gone.

“I want to see jobs,” Boelk said, adding that the tax revenue from employers is not of as much importance as having employers in town.

The plant had up to 30 salaried personnel, 111 full-time employees and about 350 seasonal workers at the time of the August announcement, according to NewsTribune files.

Unknown impact on school

Some operations at the plant were scheduled to begin winding down this month, and Mendota High School superintendent Jeff Prusator has been trying to gauge how that will effect enrollment, revenue and the community.

The actual plant closing is set for June 2020, and as of Thursday, Prusator said not one family had informed the district that they were moving out of Mendota as a result of the announcement.

Wednesday, workers’ cars filled Del Monte parking spaces, and some sweet corn still was being harvested or waiting for harvest this week not far from the company’s farm shop near the plant.

Prusator said he had heard rumors around town that more than one company had toured the plant, but he doesn’t know if that’s true or if they’re interested. And, even if the plant sold, he cannot predict how much of the operation or how many employees a buyer would want.

He said he has been trying to speculate on the impact on revenue and enrollment, but he has no way to make good estimates. Prusator said a lot of the part-time and seasonal workers had additional jobs and used the work at Del Monte to make ends meet or supplement their income. He said he would imagine a lot of those people would look for different part-time or seasonal work.

Property tax revenue from the assessed value at the site actually is likely to jump, at least for a few months next year. The Tax Increment Financing district within which the plant sits will expire Dec. 31. However, Prusator noted the company could file for tax relief at some point.

Farmers brace for change

Leaders of farm families who have grown peas and sweet corn for several decades for Del Monte say they’ve heard a lot of speculative talk.

“I think there are people who are hopeful that someone else will take over,” said Joe Beetz, who, like his grandfather, Samuel Sr., and father, Samuel Jr., has grown crops for Del Monte on a portion of family farm.

It won’t be a massive financial loss if the Beetz family can’t grow peas in spring and wait for Del Monte to harvest them in early summer, and then plant soybeans in or before July. However, often growing peas and double-cropping on the land provided extra income.

“Sometimes it worked out great,” Beetz said. “It’s just a little bit of a diversifying crop.”

Like Beetz, Kevin Ganz of Compton has allowed Del Monte to plant and harvest peas on some of his land five miles north of Mendota.

“My dad started growing peas in the mid-’50s,” Ganz said.

After that annual harvest, usually in June, the Ganz family would plant soybeans and hope the soybeans matured before the first frost. This year it was so wet Ganz’s peas didn’t go in until early June, and they weren’t in full bloom until July 17.

“Actually I think that we had the last field (of peas) they harvested,” Ganz speculated.

But for now, owners who hosted Del Monte crops find themselves in a new predicament — deciding what to plant next year.

“One guy said it would be a Hail Mary if it sold in time for next year’s production,” said Kyle Schoenholz, whose family has a small portion of the land where Del Monte grows peas.

“It’s a pretty good cash crop,” he said of peas.

If a new company does not come in, however, Schoenholz can consider planting corn and soybeans.

Ganz said he does not believe Del Monte would plant peas next year, even if an early-planting opportunity arises. He said he has been told Del Monte will keep “a few guys on in the field shop until the machinery is cleaned up and moved to another location or sold,”

“I’m not sure if the plant is doing any winter runs like they used to. But I think their goal is to have the warehouse empty and plant machinery gone by June.”

But he said he hasn’t received any direct information from Del Monte.

Craig Sterrett can be reached at (815) 220-6935 or ntlocal@newstrib.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_NewsEditor.

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