Janesville plant is key for Seneca Foods, company says

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Jim Leute
Thursday, June 20, 2013

— Local consumers might not easily connect the dots, but there's a good chance that many of the canned vegetables on their kitchen shelves were grown in area fields and processed in Janesville.

Seneca Foods, which operates a 1.1 million-square-foot plant in Janesville, is the world's largest producer of canned vegetables and one of the leading producers of canned fruits.

Based in Marion, New York, the company 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, Calif.

Seneca bought the Libby McNeill & Libby plant on Conde Street in Janesville in 1982.

Locally, it operates on about 300 acres on Janesville's southeast side and contracts with area farmers to process corn, carrots, peas and potatoes, as well as mixed and stew vegetables.

It has about 420 full-time employees and an additional 185 to 300 during peak processing seasons. Local 1473 of The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union represents many of those workers.

Employment will increase by 25 to 78 workers if the Janesville City Council on Monday approves a development agreement for an expansion that would add pouch packaging lines. The Janesville plant is competing with a Seneca facility in Payette, Idaho, for the new lines.

A key component of the expansion is the city's willingness to build an anaerobic digester near the plant to treat wastewater and generate energy from biomass.

One byproduct of anaerobic digestion is methane gas, which is then used as fuel in the manufacturing process.

At its website, Seneca said the anaerobic digester allows the company to convert from a consumer of energy in wastewater treatment to a generator of energy.

Jay Winzenz, Janesville's acting city manager, said Seneca—which had a 2012 tax bill of more than $230,000—is a key cog in the local economic engine.

“Agriculture is a very important part of Rock County, and for Rock County to have a food processor such as Seneca is very important for us to play upon and develop that industry,” he said. “As we look to the future, food processing is one of the industries in which Rock County has a competitive advantage, and Seneca and this project will play a big role in that.”

When it comes to discussing local operations, Seneca officials are typically tighter with information than the seals on their canned vegetables.

Paul Palmby, Seneca's chief operating officer, is based in Janesville and was instrumental in crafting the local expansion plans. He referred a Gazette reporter to the company's New York-based chief financial officer, Tim Benjamin, who said Seneca's typical policy is to not make public comments.

“Janesville is a huge plant for us,” Benjamin said. “Not only is it very big in terms of processing and its 300 acres, but it is important for us because we have more than just processing there. We have a lot of administrative operations in Janesville.

“It's definitely very important to us.”

As a publicly traded company, Seneca does supply some corporate information.

According to its website, Seneca conducts most of its business—about 98 percent—in the food processing industry, where it competes against a variety of companies. The biggest competitors, according to online industry sources, are Birds Eye Foods, Del Monte and Dole Food.

Of Seneca's 2012 net sales of nearly $1.3 billion, canned vegetables and fruit products accounted for 69 percent.

The company's products are sold in more than 80 countries on six continents.

They are sold under the Libby's, Aunt Nellie's Farm Kitchen, Stokely's, Read, Seneca Farms and Seneca labels, as well as through private label and industrial markets.

Last updated: 7:51 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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