ConAgra Foods Inc. will close its Hunt-Wesson tomato paste plant in the western Fresno County community of Helm, laying off 102 workers in mid-March.
The company filed a notice earlier this month with the state Employment Development Department announcing that the layoffs will be effective March 18.
The plant occupies 29 acres near Kamm and Del Norte avenues east of Highway 145. About 70 seasonal employees are included in the layoff total, said Daniel Hare, a ConAgra spokesman.
Hare indicated that the plant is a victim of economics and competition. “We must operate as effectively and efficiently as possible to be successful in this competitive industry,” he said. “Based on a careful evaluation of our plant network, we have determined that it is necessary to close our plant in Helm.”
The plant, built in 1990, was reduced from year-round processing to seasonal operation in 2006.
Including the land, the improvements and equipment, the property has an assessed valuation of $30.6 million, according to information from the Fresno County Assessor’s Office. “We are looking at our options for what we’ll do with the plant once we have transitioned the production capabilities, and one of the options is to sell it,” Hare said.
A 2015 industry report by Morning Star Packing Co. estimated that the Helm plant has the capacity to process 206 tons of tomatoes per hour, producing up to 33.8 tons of tomato paste in that time. It is one of about a half-dozen California plants operated by food companies including Hunt, Campbell Soup, Ragu and Del Monte for their own internal use.
“In the future, the tomato paste will be supplied to us by Boswell,” said Hare, referring to the J.G. Boswell Tomato Company. Boswell, a grower-owned and -controlled processor, operates a plant in Corcoran and one in Bakersfield, with a combined processing capacity of about 735 tons of tomatoes per hour.
Omaha-based ConAgra reported a loss of more than $993 million for the first six months of its fiscal year that ended Nov. 29, despite total net sales of about $5.9 billion during the period.
ConAgra owns nearly four dozen brands of processed, canned and frozen foods, including Hunt’s, Chef Boyardee, Wesson, PAM, Peter Pan, Reddi-wip, Orville Redenbacher’s and Swiss Miss.