With pickle plant closing, workers think burritos
By Deedee CorrellThe GazetteLA JUNTA – The cutoff date for life as a lot of people in this town know it is Feb. 3.Two months from now, the last batch of brine-soaked cucumbers will roll up the conveyor belts at the pickle factory, grinding toward the slicer that will make them into hamburger dill chips or the blenders that mash them into sweet relish.Mary Martinez will run her yellow-stained hands over her last pickles, picking out the rejects. Clementina Torres will wedge her last gherkin into a bottle. Her husband, Juan, will tighten his last lid and the pickle plant where generations of lower Arkansas Valley residents have worked will close.That day will leave 153 people without jobs, a critically high number in this town of about 7,500 – a number made more devastating because the region’s other major employer, a bus plant in Lamar with 300 workers, also is closing.
Altogether, 450 living-wage jobs will vanish from a valley where work already is tough to find.”I have all my life here in this place,” said Santiago Vasquez, a foreman who’s worked here for 33 years.La Junta is as dependent on Bay Valley Foods as Lamar is on the bus factory. Although it’s changed ownership over the years, the pickle plant has long sat just off the highway, with a rock landscaped sign reading “We (heart) pickles.”Few here haven’t worked at the pickle plant. Many people have worked there 20 years or more; whole families draw their paychecks from Bay Valley Foods, where the air is sharp with vinegar and salt, and when employees go to the bank after work, someone usually teases, “It smells like pickles in here.”Not old enough to retireLike the entire valley, La Junta has struggled before, Mayor Don Rizzuto said, especially when the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railroad closed its district office in the 1980s. When a manufacturer of plumbing fittings closed, 400 people lost their jobs. City officials reacted by attracting other companies – a manufacturer of school lockers and a bolt-and-nut plant.
“What I’m trying to say is we made up for the void,” Rizzuto said. “We will make up for the loss by recruiting somebody else.” Rizzuto ticks off the reasons other manufacturers should find the plant attractive: It’s a state-of-the-art facility with new parking lots; the distribution center is brand-new; and it’s strategically located – on a direct route to the Front Range and near the planned Ports-to-Plains highway.”First you’ve got to find someone with an interest in a rural area – that’s very difficult,” said Janet Anderson, director of the Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development Inc.Even under the best scenario, another plant probably wouldn’t open in the next couple years, she said. That leaves hundreds of people without a paycheck.Vasquez is thinking about moving to Denver, near his son. He’s 55, too young to retire and too old to look for a minimum-wage job. The pay here starts at $11 an hour, a very good wage for La Junta.”I’m not gonna go work for $5 an hour,” Vasquez said.There soon will be new jobs in nearby Rocky Ford, where Harvest Foods is converting an old onion-processing plant into a burrito factory. It will open in March and hire 150 people during the next two years.Chief Executive Officer Bill McKnight said he’s been flooded with calls from jobseekers.
“We’ve had 200 applications in the last week,” he said.’Until the door closes’La Junta has its Christmas decorations up, strung on poles along U.S. 50. But spirits aren’t so high along Colorado Avenue, the main street.”Whatever happens at the pickle plant will affect everyone,” said Glenn Parker, who lives in Rocky Ford. “Our agricultural community has gone to heck. If we’re not an agricultural community and we’re not a manufacturing community, what do we have to survive?”Nancy Boatwright, who owns an arts-and-crafts supply store downtown, is more optimistic. Perhaps companies will realize how low the cost of living is, what a good place it is to raise a family, she said.And that’s another worry for city leaders – can young people stay and make a living? Many Lamar teens choose to leave, but eventually they return, Lamar High School Principal Allan Medina said.”We’re going to do everything we can so that if our kids want to stay, there’s something for them,” Medina said.
Over at the La Junta plant, people are continuing the work they’ve done for years. She’s been here 28 years, and her husband, 29.They don’t want to move away, they said as they ate their lunch in the employees’ break room. How can they? This is home. How will they find jobs with health insurance like they have now?The weeks leading up to Feb. 3 actually will be busier than ever, using up cucumbers so they don’t go to waste. Some of the 153 employees were on layoff status, but they’ll be asked to come back to help.”It’s like our second home,” said Mercy Lovato, who’s worked here 23 years. Like everyone else, she’s looking for work, but she’s not leaving until they make her.”I’m not going until the door closes,” she said.