Prosser ConAgra plant to close May 30

By Michelle Dupler, Herald staff writerMarch 25, 2010 

PROSSER -- When ConAgra Lamb Weston employee Bob Brumley heard all of the company's Prosser workers were being called to the plant for a meeting Wednesday morning, he thought they'd hear more downtime was being scheduled.

He didn't expect to be told the potato processing plant would close in two months.

"Our operations manager started crying when he told us," Brumley said.

Shocked workers left the plant -- which already was scheduled for downtime Wednesday and today -- at 10:30 a.m., most of them believing they'll be laid off once the plant closes May 30.

Company officials have said they'll try to find jobs for them at other Mid-Columbia plants. About 250 work in the Prosser plant.

ConAgra spokesman Jeff Mochal said the decision is a reflection of the economy and fewer frozen potato products being sold, in conjunction with the Prosser plant being the most expensive to operate in the region.

The company bought the plant from Twin City Foods in 2007 and invested millions in upgrades. Mochal said there are no plans to sell the plant, and it's possible it could reopen someday.

The plant processes white and sweet potatoes into frozen potato products, such as french fries. But sweet potato processing will be moved to Louisiana -- a prime growing area for the spuds -- once a new plant is built there, Mochal said.

Brumley, a shipping dock foreman who has worked for the company 12 years, said he doesn't fault the company for its decision to close the Prosser plant, and in fact he considers ConAgra a good employer.

He views the decision as a tough choice made in an economy that is only just rebounding from what many have dubbed the "Great Recession."

"The bottom line is it wasn't the people," he said. "It was the economy."

The cold storage warehouse where Brumley works will stay open, but it's uncertain how many of the 30 people who work there will keep their jobs, Mochal said.

Brumley said he worries more about his co-workers than himself. His friends at the company include people who have worked there for decades, people who got jobs there right out of high school, people who just had babies or bought homes.

They also include about 30 couples who will lose the incomes of both spouses when the plant closes.

"It's a way of life," he said of working in the Prosser plant. "People plan their lives around this. ... It's really more about family than anything else."

Brumley said more than his own job, he's worried about what will happen to Prosser once the plant closes.

Mayor Paul Warden said ConAgra is the city's largest private employer and a large source of revenue, although he didn't have numbers at his fingertips Wednesday.

"In general it's a big hit. There's really no way to make lemonade out of that," he said. "Those utility taxes we'd get will be going away. The general fund will take a hit. From that side it's not too good for the city."

And it comes at a time when Prosser could be faced with also losing the county seat to Kennewick -- pulling away more jobs and more foot traffic that could support restaurants and shops.

"We're really concerned about that," Warden said.

Benton County Commissioner Max Benitz Jr., who also is president of the Prosser Economic Development Association, said the decision will have ripple effects beyond the city.

"This is a huge loss," Benitz said. "They have been a good business for this community and for agriculture. They've added value to our industry and our crops. We're saddened by this decision today."

Chief among the agricultural effects will be a drop in the number of potatoes ConAgra buys from Mid-Columbia farmers.

Ted Tschirky of Connell, president of the Washington State Potato Commission, said he believes the economy and a tariff imposed by Mexico on frozen Washington potatoes contributed to ConAgra's decision.

Mexico last year levied a 20 percent tariff on more than 90 U.S. agricultural and industrial products after expiration of a pilot program that allowed a limited number of Mexican trucks access to U.S. highways.

Mexico is the No. 2 international export market for Washington frozen potatoes behind Japan, and the state sustained an estimated potential value loss of $14 million in frozen potatoes exported to Mexico from April to December 2009, according to commission figures.

"We're hoping none of the other processors cut their acreage back either," he said.

Mochal said ConAgra isn't considering closing any of its other processing plants in the Mid-Columbia and will continue to buy potatoes grown in Washington for those operations.

Warden and Brumley both took hope from company statements that the closure is "indefinite" and possibly not permanent.

"Six months from now or a year from now things could change," Brumley said. "Those same people may be working at the plant again."

-- Staff writer Kevin McCullen contributed to this report.

-- Michelle Dupler: 509-582-1543; mdupler@tricityherald.com.

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