As Patterson Vegetable Co. harvesting machines make their way through West Side spinach fields these days, many of their workers are contemplating a new line of work starting next month.
The vegetable processing company announced in February it is getting out of the harvesting business, leaving many employees with decades of experience looking for work.
“It’s a tough deal,” said a field crew leader, who did not wish to give his name because he has applied to take a harvesting job with Patterson Vegetable Co.’s parent company. “We’re all stressed.”
Patterson Vegetable Co. announced in mid-February that it would shut down harvesting operations as early as April 13, eliminating 12 full-time positions, mostly harvesting mechanics. Another eight seasonal harvester drivers were not hired back this year, said Paul Fanelli, Patterson Vegetable Co.’s chief administrative officer.
He said the harvesting portion of the business is being outsourced to custom harvesters, something that already had begun to happen during the past several years.
Harvesting workers say that Fresno-based Woolf Farming Co., Patterson Vegetable Co.’s principal shareholder, is taking over much of the harvesting portion of the business. Fanelli said Woolf is one of several contractors that could be used.
Woolf Farming, which farms about 20,000 acres near Fresno and is a partner in a few food processing companies, became a partner in the company when the former Patterson Frozen Foods plant was sold in June 2007.
The assets of the harvesting site on Pomegranate Avenue south of Patterson will be liquidated, according to a notice sent in conjunction with the California Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act.
Several employees have harvested for the company for 30 years or more and say they are not sure what they will do after their last day next month.
Most harvesting employees have filled out job applications with Woolf Farming.
Some of them have a long legacy with the company. The anonymous crew leader said he is the second generation in his family to have worked at Patterson Frozen Foods.
Machinist Ray Washburn said his uncle built some of the former harvesting machines.
“I’ve been around them for 50-some years,” Washburn said.
Harvest workers said Woolf Farming representatives are expected to meet with harvesting crew members this week to discuss specifics of potential jobs available.
Still, some workers are not sure if anyone will be hired.
“They may just be trying to clean house,” Washburn said.
Fanelli said Patterson Vegetable Co. and even Patterson Frozen Foods had contracted out some of its harvesting work recently in areas such as Porterville and communities near the Central Coast.
Patterson Vegetable Co. is only hiring line workers right now, Fanelli said. Though all the harvesters may apply, members of the harvesting crew said it is unlikely that anyone will.
Despite the changes with harvesting operations, Fanelli said operations within the plant itself will remain the same. The company hired between 75 and 100 seasonal people in February, bringing the total number of employees to between 600 and 650, he said.
Washburn, who said he would consider working for Woolf Farming if the company made him an offer, said he has applied for two other jobs, but both of them would require commuting.
Other workers also are making backup plans, expecting that wages and the amount of overtime allowed at Woolf Farming likely would be lower.
“I love what I do, and I don’t want to lose this job, but I have no choice,” the anonymous crew leader said.