May 14, 2012

Del Monte to move all peach processing, more jobs to Modesto

Del Monte Foods will move its entire peach processing operation to Modesto next year, creating "a modest increase" in jobs at its state-of-the-art Yosemite Boulevard plant, the company announced Monday.

Del Monte Foods will move its entire peach processing operation to Modesto next year, creating "a modest increase" in jobs at its state-of-the-art Yosemite Boulevard plant, the company announced Monday.

That good news for Modesto is bad news for Kingsburg, where Del Monte will close a peach cannery that's been in operation more than 90 years. That will cost the Fresno County community 70 full-time and about 1,100 seasonal jobs.

At least some of those jobs will end up in Modesto, but Del Monte isn't saying exactly how many.

"It could be about 300 more seasonal jobs in Modesto," estimated Adam Ochoa, who heads Teamsters Local 748, which represents cannery workers at both Del Monte plants. "Any time you bring more work into a plant, it's good because it creates more job security."

Del Monte already employs 500 full-time and 1,200 seasonal workers in Modesto. The peach packing season typically starts in late June and continues until late September.

Ochoa said most of Del Monte's seasonal cannery workers earn $11.52 to $12.14 per hour. He said they predominantly are Latino, and their average age is more than 55.

"Women are the bulk of the work force, and a lot of them have been there 30 to 40 years," Ochoa said. "It's hard work. They earn every penny."

Del Monte's full-time union employees earn as much as $25.61 per hour, and most of them work as mechanics or in other trades.

Ochoa said many people want Del Monte jobs because even seasonal workers get medical, dental and pension benefits.

"There's no shortage of people willing to work (in Modesto's food processing industry)," he said. But he doubts many Kingsburg workers would be willing to commute the 115 miles to Modesto every day.

The union has yet to discuss seniority and bumping rights with Del Monte, which didn't announce its plans to close the Kingsburg plant until Monday afternoon.

Del Monte said consolidating peach production "will result in expanded capacity and increased pack volumes" in Modesto.

"That's outstanding," said Bill Bassitt, executive director of the Stanislaus Economic Development & Workforce Alliance. "It strengthens Del Monte's position here in the community."

Bassitt said "there's always a trickle-down effect" in job creation whenever a big manufacturer such as Del Monte expands. He predicted that it will create new Modesto jobs at companies that provide supplies and services for Del Monte, and workers at all those companies then will spend money in the community for goods and services.

Del Monte acquired the southeast Modesto plant in 1969. It packed tomatoes there from 1969 until 1998. Then it took a year to convert it into a fruit processing facility, where it packs cans, plastic cups, glass jars and bulk containers.

Many of those containers also are produced in Modesto, including the metal cans made by Silgan Containers and the plastic fruit cups made by Graham Packaging.

"We've begun working with our third-party vendors to let them know if we will be transitioning their services for use in our Modesto facility," said Del Monte spokeswoman Chrissy Stengel.

The Modesto plant and warehouses are in the Beard Industrial Tract, and it uses its short-line railroad, the Modesto & Empire Traction Co.

"It sounds like this is good news for Modesto, and it could be good news for Beard and the M&ET railroad," said Beard's President Ron Jackson. He said Del Monte ships its canned fruit by rail and its plastic fruit cups by truck.

Del Monte will close the Kingsburg plant after this year's peach season ends. Then it will move the processing equipment from there to Modesto.

Dave Withycombe, a Del Monte vice president, said about 25 percent of Del Monte's peaches are grown around Kingsburg, and "the company expects to continue its relationship with those growers."

Del Monte's Kingsburg warehouse will remain open until all its contents have been shipped, which is expected to be by summer 2013.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at (209) 578-2196.

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