SLEEPY EYE, Minn. – Talk to most anyone in this southern Minnesota prairie town and you’ll find a connection to the sprawling, red brick Del Monte cannery off Hwy. 14 that’s put peas and sweet corn into American pantries for nearly a century.
Don Domeier, 67, earned enough money working summers there to put himself through vocational school, and later worked at an implement dealer that did business with the plant.
Jerome Steffl, 86, sold Del Monte peas and corn that he raised on his farm long before there were paved roads into town.
And Leon Tauer, 87, once hauled away the cannery’s plant waste in a horse-drawn cart for cattle feed back when the plant was giving away its silage.
“It seems like the Del Monte plant is part of the identity of the community,” said Karlyn Armbruster, who moved here seven years ago with her husband, Adam, a Sleepy Eye native.
When Del Monte Foods announced last week that it would close its 89-year-old cannery after this year’s corn pack, it hit this town of 3,400 residents like a death in the family, said Kurk Kramer, Sleepy Eye’s economic development director.
Bob Elston, the longtime public works director and newly appointed city manager, was out of town at a conference when he got a text message about the closure an hour before the company went public with the news. At first, he questioned whether it was a prank.
He said shock waves from the plant’s closure will travel wide and deep, from the workers who lose their jobs to the businesses they patronize and the city budget that relies on the taxes and fees Del Monte pays.
Bracing for the fallout
Del Monte is the city’s second-largest employer, with 69 year-round and 294 seasonal employees who come to town in the spring for the pea season and stay through October for the corn pack.
Most of the plant’s migrant workers are Latino and many have settled here permanently, helping to stem population losses that averaged about 1% a year since the 2010 census. Hispanics made up roughly 12% of Sleepy Eye’s population from 2013 to 2017 and account for just over a third of the students in Sleepy Eye Public Schools. City officials worry they might leave town if the cannery closes, adding to the economic fallout.
“I think the community is going to be severely damaged,” said Mike Mason, who was production superintendent when he retired in 1995 after 20 years at the plant and 40 years with the company.
Mason, 80, owns Sleepy Eye Stained Glass, where he restores old windows and lamps, creates works of art and teaches classes five days a week. He also has apartments above his downtown shop that he leases to families who arrive in the spring for pea packing season and stay until October.
“I’m concerned I will lose them, and all of a sudden there will be a glut of apartments here in town as the workers go elsewhere,” Mason said. “Everything will be affected. The schools will lose a lot of students. The grocery stores will lose customers.”
Ed Ecker volunteered recently at the American Legion’s corn stand on the corner of Main Street and Hwy. 4. Del Monte donates the corn, which the Legion sells to fund youth programs, Ecker said.
After Del Monte announced that it would be closing the plant, people visiting the corn stand demanded to know where the Legion would get its corn next year. “We’ll have to wait and see,” Ecker told them.
The closing will undoubtedly hurt the regional economy, he said. Farmers won’t be able to make sales to the cannery, which could affect their ability to get farm loans, he said. Where will they get the silage for their livestock? And what will truckers do without the loads of canned goods that they haul from the cannery to a warehouse in New Ulm?
Jeff Hinderman, a salesman at Kibble Equipment, said his company leases tractors and sells supplies to Del Monte and services its equipment.
“It’s definitely going to affect us,” Hinderman said.
Many residents hope the plant will attract a buyer. They note that the company has invested more than $11 million in it over the past decade. Del Monte erected a large new farm shop building and a modern pea receiving area. It also installed high-tech machines that can separate nightshade, a weed, from the peas, a task that once required hand labor.
And perhaps the best selling point, they say, is the plant’s experienced workforce. In a region chronically short of labor, that should spark widespread interest.
Rumors have spread about a recent visit by Seneca Foods. Seneca, which has a half dozen facilities in Minnesota, refused to comment. But a Del Monte official who sits on the Sleepy Eye Chamber of Commerce has privately confirmed the visit, said Christina Andres, the chamber’s executive director.
“Del Monte is open to all options for the future of the plant, including considering potential buyers,” a company spokesman said.
The Wisconsin Farmer reported Tuesday that Seneca already has agreed to buy the Del Monte plant in the village of Cambria, Wis., saving it from closure.
Sleepy Eye Mayor Wayne Pelzel told members of the city’s Economic Development Authority that same day that Del Monte officials said they were in “constant contact with people interested in the property.” But he said the company also noted that consumer demand for canned peas and corn has waned, and that other canneries have enough capacity to meet the demand.
“We want to do something, but what can we do?” Pelzel said. “The idea that you control your own destiny is — well, you don’t.”
If the plant shuts down, Sleepy Eye does have other jobs available.
Its largest employer — BIC Graphic — offers a $500 referral fee to any employee who brings in new workers that stay on the job at least 90 days. BIC, based in Clearwater, Fla., is the largest producer of promotional calendars in North America. It currently has 15 full-time job openings and several temporary or seasonal positions, said Carrie Lewis, a company spokeswoman.
BIC Graphic has partnered with Del Monte in the past, “sharing seasonal workers as the peak times at our facility are different from the cannery,” Lewis said. “Those workers will continue to have seasonal opportunities with BIC Graphic.”
Christensen Farms, one of the nation’s largest pork producers, has its headquarters on the eastern edge of Sleepy Eye. It is always looking for good employees, said JoDee Haala, director of public affairs.
“You try to keep Main Street thriving, and it takes support from a lot of other organizations to keep that going,” Haala said. She said that’s especially important now, with the trade war hurting agricultural exports and the record-setting rainfall that has damaged production.
“Farmers are in a tough spot,” she said.
Sleepy Eye is more than just farmers, however. The past 10 years have seen an influx of young professionals like physicians Karlyn and Adam Armbruster, city officials said. In addition to working at the Sleepy Eye Medical Center, the city-owned hospital, the Armbrusters bought the long defunct Pix theater downtown and are remodeling it as a coffee shop, cafe and taproom.
David Forster, a former newspaper reporter and public relations executive in Virginia, who will manage the Pix with his wife, said they are typical of the influx of younger, educated professionals who have moved to Sleepy Eye to raise a family.
“I don’t think that Del Monte closing down is going to have a significant break in that community,” Forster said.