Fate of Portales peanut plant still up in the air

Hope still runs high around Portales, New Mexico, that the peanut plant will resume production.

In spite of the multi-million dollar purchase of a shuttered food processing facility in Portales, New Mexico, earlier this year, area farmers and local officials are still wondering whether the old Sunland organic peanut plant on the outskirts of town will ever buy regionally grown Valencia peanuts again and process them into peanut butter.

The plant was shut down following a Federal Drug Administration (FDA) food safety investigation in 2012 over a salmonella outbreak that sickened consumers in over 20 states. The plant's former owner, Sunland, Inc., was a major buyer of high-grade Valencia peanuts grown by farmers in eastern New Mexico and in parts of nearby West Texas.

Before the salmonella incident, Sunland was the largest processor of organic peanut butter in the nation. Farmers across the region touted their peanuts as of an extremely high-grade, sweet and flavorful Valencia variety.

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Following the shut down, Sunland officials vowed to correct the discrepancies uncovered during FDA's inspection and set out to clean up the plant and install new processing equipment before asking for a re-inspection prior to reopening the facility. But the financial stress and legal implications caused forced Sunland to file for bankruptcy. Last summer the bankruptcy court put the facility on the auction block and the sale of the plant was awarded to, Golden Boy Foods of Canada.

According to court records, the sale represented a sizeable investment of just over $26 million. Shortly after the purchase, Golden Boy officials told Portales city officials they planned on resuming production at the New Mexico plant, welcome news to peanut growers and to local officials hopeful many of the plant's former employees could get back to work.

The plant had long provided a payroll to support about 100 local workers in the rural community, and after workers were let go following closure, the community suffered economic challenges. Local spending dropped, jobs were scarce or non-existent, and many families still face challenges related to the plant's closure.

Valencia peanut production down in New Mexico and Texas

Hopeful signs

But some signs of life exist. In recent weeks a small sign bearing the name of the new owners was erected at the facility, though Golden Boy Food officials continue to be guarded about when they plan to reopen the facility. Following questions by local officials, they declined to discuss what the focus of the plant might be if and when it does reopen. Other than what appears to be a skeleton crew on site, local officials saw little visible activity at the plant in October.

Roosevelt County Community Development Corporation Director Stanley Livengood said last week the County's CDC had been in communication with the new owners to inform them of an update on new tax incentives being offered, provided the company reopens the facility soon. He said his only reply came in an email from company officials who said they would take the revised updates into consideration.

Livengood, however, indicated he considered the company's reply upbeat and seemed to support plans to reopen the facility. No specifics were provided, however, and no timeline offered. Because of the problems associated with food safety, Golden Boy officials indicated they will go through what they define as "due diligence before opening the plant."

While Livengood says local officials were hoping the company would provide a more definitive target date for reopening, he says hope still runs high around the community that the plant will resume production, and "the sooner the better."

Peanut farmers who have struggled the last two seasons as a result of the plant closure also are hopeful for a return of a successful grower relationship with new plant owners. But many have already switched some acres from peanuts to cotton to weather the shut down, and as winter approaches the clock is ticking on when farmers will need to purchase seeds for spring planting. If the company doesn't announce a schedule for resuming production soon, some farmers say they will be forced to forgo planting peanuts for another year.

Golden Boy officials failed to answer inquiries last week about plans for the plant, saying they had no comments to offer "at this time."

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