Company spokesman Daniel Hare says the plant – built in 1990- was no longer competitive and that ConAgra would now job out their paste canning to a private processor – JG Boswell. Boswell has 2 newer and larger paste plants – in Corcoran and in Bakersfield.
ConAgra packs their tomatoes under the Hunt’s label.Work at the plant is mostly seasonal following the summer tomato crop harvest in the Valley.
Mr Hare says ConAgra is weighing a possible sale of the facility.
The Helms plant is small and slow by industry standards,able to process about 67,580 pounds per hour compared to industry leader Morning Star Packing in Williams who processes 408,089 pounds per hour according to Morningstar stats they publish for the industry.
Those same statistics say that the two Boswell plants also produce more efficiently – 132,225 pounds per/hr and 108,808 pounds per/hr. The Corcoran plant is the industry’s newest built in 2008.
Processing tomatoes are increasingly utilized as tomato paste here. In 1973 just 20% of the crop went to paste but today nearly 80% goes to to the popular base food ingredient.
Private processors have gained more market share compared to self manufacturers here, whose processing capacity has not grown for decades
Meanwhile, drought or no drought, US production has steadily grown with the 2015 crop above 14 million tons compared to 6mil tons in 1970 and 8.5mil tons in 1990.Some 98 percent of US production comes from California.
All that paste is being gobbled by both US consumers and increasingly the export market as the world continues to acquire our taste for pizza,sauce, ketchup and salsa.
US exports have jumped from 200 million pounds in 2006 to over a billion pounds in 2013 before declining slightly in 2014.
The processing industry is clustered close to several important growing areas in both the north Valley near in Los Banos ,Santa Nella and Williams and in the south Valley where larger plants include Olam in Lemoore and Los Gatos Tomato in Huron.The smallest in this area is self manufacturer Del Monte in Hanford – built in1976.