Janesville Seneca plant pumping out peas in pouches

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Jim Leute
Thursday, June 26, 2014

JANESVILLE—A year after city and state officials dished up financial commitments, sweet peas are rolling through a new packaging line at Seneca Foods in Janesville.

The new pouch packaging line hums along in an 80,000-square-foot addition to the plant.

One other line is under construction, and the entire expansion has the potential for a total of five pouch lines.

So far, Seneca has committed about $40 million to the pouch line project in Janesville, said Paul Palmby, the company's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

A significant portion of that was building cost, Palmby said, adding that the company's total investment likely would approach $60 million as more pouch lines are added.

Seneca on Wednesday hosted the Rock County Farm Bureau and its Focus on Agriculture series, an event designed to highlight the significance of agriculture to lawmakers and candidates.

In 2011, agriculture accounted for $1.45 billion in annual sales in Rock County and provided more than 6,200 jobs.

Rock County is a major player on the state's ag landscape, bureau officials said Wednesday, And Seneca is a significant contributing factor.

In Janesville, the company employs about 400 full-time and 250 seasonal workers, making it one of the city's largest employers.

But it's an operation few people in the community know much about.

Part of that is by design, Palmby said Wednesday during the event that included a tour of the 1.1 million-square-foot plant on Conde Street.

In fact, one of the company's fundamental beliefs is that it “be low key and avoid unnecessary publicity.” A Gazette reporter was allowed to take the tour, but a Gazette photographer was not.

In food processing, the New York-based Seneca is no sleeper.

It holds the largest share of the retail private label, food service and export canned vegetable markets, distributing to nearly all U.S. retail and food service accounts and more than 90 countries.

“We do 110 million cases of vegetables a year,” Palmby said. “That's 24, 15-ounce cans in each case.”

Seneca operates 22 processing plants around the country, including nine in Wisconsin.

The Janesville plant is by far the largest in Wisconsin, and the only other Seneca operation that's bigger is a plant in Modesto, California.

Palmby said the Janesville plant is the company's fifth-largest producer and its largest distribution center.

Between 100 and 120 trucks roll down Conde Street every day, he said, noting that about 20 percent of all Seneca shipments pass through Janesville.

Locally, Seneca operates on about 300 acres and contracts with area farmers to process corn, carrots, peas and potatoes, as well as mixed and stew vegetables.

Nationwide, it gets its products from more than 2,000 farms that work 230,000 contracted acres, Palmby said.

The company farms more than 13,000 acres in Wisconsin, primarily in the Coloma area.

“That helps us keep in touch with the growing side to understand what's going on there,” he said. “It also gives us some production flexibility.”

Seneca is the largest seed producer in the country and the fourth-largest producer of cans, making more than a billion of them each year.

Palmby said the canned fruit and vegetable business will never disappear, but the company is always investigating alternative forms of packaging.

About 15 percent of its product is frozen.

Its recent foray into the pouched vegetable market is another example of alternative packaging, he said.

The Janesville plant last year won an internal competition with a Seneca plant in Idaho for the new pouch lines, which will initially package peas, corn and green beans.

With the company's addition now complete, the pouch line only recently started running, and Palmby said the product should be on store shelves by November.

Last year, the city agreed to build a $3.3 million anaerobic wastewater pretreatment lagoon across Conde Street from the plant.

The pretreatment facility is expected to cut the company's wastewater treatment costs, and Seneca will buy methane produced by the treatment facility and blend it with natural gas to burn in its boilers.

Completion is expected this fall.

The city also gave the company $303,000 in tax incremental financing improvements in exchange for a guarantee that Seneca create 25 new jobs with the new production line, or 78 jobs if all five lines are built.

The state kicked in with a $1.5 million loan and up to $1.58 million in tax credits with the understanding the project will reach its potential of five production lines and represent a capital investment from Seneca approaching $60 million.

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