WASECA, Minn. — A huge new vegetable processing plant under construction on the outskirts of this small southern Minnesota city is the largest investment that food giant Conagra Brands has ever made in a production facility.
The Chicago-based Fortune 500 company is spending $250 million to build a 250,000-square-foot frozen food plant for its subsidiary Birds Eye.
It will replace the longstanding Birds Eye plant in Waseca as a site for freezing and packaging sweet corn and peas, chiefly grown by farmers within a 50-mile radius.
"The size of this project is rare for rural Minnesota," said Sam Ziegler, director of GreenSeam, a Mankato-based nonprofit that promotes economic development in the agricultural sector. "When you hear about a $200 million construction, that's normally something that's going to be in downtown Minneapolis or some other high-development area."
Vegetable processing plants have been more likely to close in Minnesota than open in recent years, Ziegler said. Seneca Foods closed a vegetable canning plant in Rochester in 2018, and in 2019 Del Monte Foods closed a sweet corn and pea canning plant in Sleepy Eye. A pet food entrepreneur recently bought the Sleepy Eye facility as a new headquarters for a growing southern Minnesota operation.
The new plant will employ the latest technology in quickly freezing fresh produce and preparing it for retail packaging, according to a video the company produced about the project.
"It's important to keep this in Waseca because it's close to our growers, so we have very quick turnaround time from the field through the plant, as well as being able to utilize some of our current infrastructure and our employees," Jayme Laser, director of platform engineering for Conagra, said in the video.
The construction site just west of Waseca, and close to a U.S. Hwy. 14 interchange, was buzzing with workers and heavy machinery late last week. Construction got underway last fall after the city of Waseca and Waseca County finalized an incentive package with Conagra. Local leaders said company representatives told them several other sites were under consideration, but didn't say where.
"Birds Eye has been an economic pillar for Waseca, so we're thrilled to have them stay because they did have other options," said Ann Fitch, executive director of the Waseca Area Chamber of Commerce.
Waseca, population 9,229 as of last year's census, has a downtown that's still well-populated by boutiques, restaurants and other local businesses. Several downtown-adjacent streets are lined with beautiful, well-kept Victorian homes.
But the seat of Waseca County has contended with economic challenges. The city lost 400 jobs when Quad Graphics closed its operation in 2017. Three decades ago, the University of Minnesota-Waseca shut down and the former campus became a federal correctional institution.
Parts of the old Birds Eye plant have been in operation just blocks from downtown under a succession of owners for close to a century. Conagra acquired the former parent company of Birds Eye in 2019 in a deal worth nearly $11 billion.
The current plant has approximately 165 full-time employees along with 275 seasonal workers, said Dan Hare, director of corporate communications for Conagra.
"There will likely be fewer positions when the new facility opens, but it's too early to provide any specifics at this point in the process," Hare wrote in an e-mail.
Local officials said they were told it would be more like 120 full-time jobs.
"I know the employees were unhappy to lose FTEs. It's hard to know some people are going to lose jobs, but we do have other opportunities in town," Fitch said.
It's far preferable to losing the plant entirely, she quickly added. And, Fitch said, company representatives have mentioned that the new plant could expand its operations down the road.
"We look forward to operating in Waseca for many decades to come," Hare wrote.
The city of Waseca and Waseca County both approved 20-year, partial property tax abatements as incentives for Conagra. The city also paid to extend and upgrade some water mains that will serve the new site, paid for in part by a public infrastructure grant from the state of Minnesota.
Much of the new structure is already standing, and Conagra is planning for it to open next June, in time to process next year's pea and corn harvests.
In 2020, Hare said, Conagra processed about 15,000 acres of corn and 10,000 acres of peas in Waseca. That number varies from year to year, he said.
The company hasn't yet decided what to do with the old plant. City Manager Lee Mattson said there's been talk of finding a local or regional food company as a buyer.