Weeds: A steam roller hitting town

I first heard the way I hear a lot of things now. In a text. A group of early risers who share thoughts on baseball and local happenings are my first human contacts. “Did you hear anything about Del Monte?” I hadn’t, but within an hour the Sleepy Eye plant closing was official.

It goes without saying this is big and bad news for our town. As I write, the story is fresh, still in the rumor-stage. One rumor is that the plant will be sold and continue to operate. That would be everyone’s first choice, and I would be glad to see this column become quickly antiquated.

I’m not as connected to Del Monte as some. My dad grew for them way back, and I passed on opportunities to add sweet corn to my crop mix. I worked clean-up crew there in my early farming years. This was in the Eighties when extra cash was welcome. My last day there I got my arm caught in a conveyor and needed surgery to mend it. That’s a story for another day.

I have lived west of Sleepy Eye my whole life, so have driven by the factory more than a few times. A little figuring tells me it might be a hundred thousand. It hasn’t been there forever, but the foreverness of my life. And the lives of everyone else in town. The church, the monument, the factory: those seem things that God put here in Creation.

There is a constant, almost subliminal, awareness in a small town of such a business. Conversation naturally includes factory news. “Del Monte started putting in peas on some of the lighter ground.” “Corn pack’s going to start next week.” “Sweet corn’s running nine tons an acre.” Updates on Del Monte come as easy to conversation as the weather and the Vikings.

In its way, it is an attractive plant, built at a time when brick gave an air of permanency. I’d guess the bricks are from Ochs in Springfield. Hulking conveyors and outdoor machines sit still under snow in winter, then come to life in the summer humming round the clock under sun and spotlights. Railroad tracks head out from the warehouse, hinting at far away destinations for our corn and peas.

Of course, a venerable old building is less the story than the people working inside there. From college kids financing their education to farm folk who needed a side income to the Hispanic workers who became essential to the operation, thousands have worked there in the past and hundreds currently. A press release can’t begin to tell their stories.

Del Monte the company has been bought, sold, bent, and folded by the business world many times. Each time, there were rumors about our Sleepy Eye plant. Currently Del Monte Foods is headquartered in California but is owned by an investor group based in Manilla. It’s doubtful anybody there knows much about Sleepy Eye, less about the employees and farmers who depend on this factory for income.

It is part of the same global economy that benefitted American agriculture so much in the last decade. International trade was the main driver of our $7 corn and $15 soybeans. In farming years, those prices seem eons ago. Now tariffs are helping to grind our prices into the dirt.

If Del Monte in Sleepy Eye is to be closed, it will join thousands of empty factories across America. We are not unique. The stories are legion about towns having their manufacturing plants mothballed. In each of those, the community is altered forever. There is a distinct line between life before and after the factory closed.

Years ago, I went on a baseball trip to Cleveland and Detroit. Along the way, we drove the remains of the Rust Belt: mile after mile of shuttered steel mills and places that made things with steel. Rust was literally the dominant color. I remember wondering how many jobs weren’t in those massive shops anymore.

Of course, this is capitalism, and this is a dynamic economy. Everyone who goes to Europe comes back impressed with the age of castles and churches they visited. It is different on our side of the ocean, where seemingly nothing lasts. In the movie Field of Dreams, in the scene where James Earl Jones says that baseball is the one constant, he says, “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.”

He’s right. We know that. But that doesn’t mean it is not unsettling when the steamrollers come to your town. It happened before here a century ago.

When you grow up in a place, you only gradually become aware of things around you. On the opposite side of town from Del Monte is an impressive five story also-brick building with large paned windows up and down. I was probably in high school before I learned that was the old mill building.

The Sleepy Eye Milling Company built it in 1892. This was during a time when our area was literally the center of the international milling industry. Sleepy Eye, Springfield, and New Ulm had booming mills that were shipping the world’s finest flour around the globe. Lots of wealth was flowing to these towns. It is not a coincidence that St. Mary’s Church, the Dyckman Library, and the Depot were all built in 1902.

Soon after, the milling industry went in to decline. A global recession was part of that. The Wheat Belt shifted westward, and our local mills had to transport grain from the Dakotas. Sleepy Eye Milling had several stops and starts as business declined but was closed permanently in 1921. The city tried to find a replacement for what had been its largest employer. Several enterprises set up shop in parts of the mill building through the years, but nothing stuck. Now it sits hauntingly empty and dark over the northeast part of town.

Ironically, officials from California Packing Company first came to town in 1928 to explore the possibility of putting a vegetable canning facility in the mill building. That company, which became Del Monte, did decide to come here. Instead they built a factory on property which had been used for landing airplanes on the southwest edge of town.

There are lots of buildings that are empty or underused around here. Barns and sheds for cows and pigs sit empty on thousands of farm sites. Main streets have storefronts from a time when all economy was essentially local. After a day of driving past farms and through small towns in my part time field inspecting job, I told Pam once, “There are more things around here that used to be than still are.”

Here’s to hoping Del Monte doesn’t become one of the used-to-bes.


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