It couldn't have happened at a better time for Valencia peanut growers in eastern New Mexico and Northwest Texas.
Ready Roast Nut Company of California celebrated the official re-opening of the once vibrant Sunland Peanut plant in Portales, New Mexico, this week to a cheering crowd of about 100 who attended ribbon cutting ceremonies Sept. 21.
Tom Finn, owner of Ready Roast Nut Company, said acquiring the Portales plant has been "a rocky road" since the facility officially closed its doors in late 2013.
That closure was the result of Sunland Peanut Company's Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing after the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) temporarily closed the plant in Oct. of 2013 following a nationwide Salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter produced at the plant that sickened a large number of people.
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The untimely shutdown caused the loss of about 100 jobs in the small rural community creating a hardship not only for laid off workers and their families but for Valencia peanut growers in Texas and Oklahoma left with money owed to them for peanuts harvested and sold to the plant that year.
While Sunland officials did finally make at least partial payments to some growers, it left the troubled peanut growing region struggling to find a new market for the high-grade peanut grown almost exclusively in the area.
Back to Valencias
Many growers turned to alternative crops. A few were represented at the ribbon cutting ceremony and report they are pleased with the final re-opening of the plant and Ready Roast's plans to once again process the Valencia variety they favor growing.
Finn says the company will employ about 75 workers initially but will add to that number during harvest, bringing the employment rate up to as many as 200 workers, many of them the same workers laid off when the plant closed two years ago.
In what turned out to be a complicated bankruptcy court settlement, the plant was initially sold to Golden Boy Foods Ltd. of Canada for $26 million. But Finn says Ready Roast had a working relationship not only with Sunland Peanut Company but also with Golden Boy Foods in the past and eventually a sale was negotiated that transferred the plant's ownership to his company.
Ready Roast currently operates three plants in California that employ a total of about 500 workers. New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez says Ready Roast has a solid reputation and the state is happy to welcome the company into the family of companies that have found her state a positive place to conduct commerce.
"When you invest in businesses like this, you are investing in 200 families, because you are giving 200 families jobs," Martinez told the crowd during a presentation at the luncheon that followed the ribbon cutting ceremony. "I’m proud to have Ready Roast as a partner in our diversification efforts. We want to do all we can to make sure they are successful."
Finn will make changes at the plant compared to the way things were previously operated. But he also announced that Jim Lucero, who worked briefly for Sunland a short time after its 2012 product recall, will operate the New Mexico location.
"We do plan on doing things differently. We supply major food manufacturers in the world, the largest supplier to the ice cream industry of dice roasted almonds," Finn told officials at the ceremony.
But he confirmed his company's commitment to Valencia peanuts and says he looks forward to working with area growers to keep the flow of the valued peanut moving from fields to the Portales plant.
Finn and his two partners, food industry veterans Ann Billek and Tyler Angle, closed the deal with Golden Boy Foods about three months ago, but failed to talk about the purchase price.