Monday, July 26, 2004
Campbell plant keeps economy humming in Dixon
Article Published: Sunday, July 25, 2004
M'm! M'm! Good
Campbell plant keeps economy humming in Dixon
By Barbara Smith/Business Writer
Craving hot tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich?
Or just a snack of chips and salsa?
It's likely most American kitchens contain a can of Campbell's tomato soup or any of the company's hundreds of products. But few realize the base for that household staple begins in Dixon's prime agriculture fields and runs through an unassuming plant on the outskirts of town.
It's a plant that keeps growers growing and infuses $35 million a year into the local economy, said Tim Gruenwald, director of agriculture operations for Campbell Soup Supply Co.
Formerly Dixon Canning Company, the plant has been in operation since 1975 and employs about 185 during the tomato-harvesting season. About 6,000 tons of tomatoes are processed there daily.
"This is our largest processing company in California," Gruenwald said.
Solano County's recent Crop and Livestock report found that in 2003, processing tomatoes were a $20.2 million crop in the county, making them the No. 3 ag product in the county, behind nursery stock and cattle and calves.
"And processing tomatoes are the 12th-largest cash commodity in California agriculture," Gruenwald said."It's a fairly important crop."
In early July, the 88-day tomato processing season began, and the serenity of rural Pedrick Road transformed into a hubbub of noise, steam and the tangy aroma of tomatoes.
It's a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week operation of slicing and dicing tomatoes trucked in from about 13,000 acres of land in Solano and Yolo counties, Gruenwald said.
"More than one half million tons from those two counties come to this plant," he said. "We're interested in making sure that we get the tomatoes grown as close as possible to the plant."
Dixon growers Roy Gill and Craig Gnos are among the 40 growers in Yolo and 13 growers in Solano counties who have contracts with Campbell.
In fact, one of Gill's fields of tomatoes is located just across the narrow country road from the plant.
"We roll 'em across over here," Gill joked from his field.
This year, Gnos is growing 920 acres of tomatoes for the plant, and Gill 940 acres.
Gill has been growing tomatoes for 29 years, and his father grew them before him, he said.
"Tomatoes have been grown here for probably 40 to 45 years," Gill said. "Campbell's Soup is really important. ... We take good care of them because they're the only plant left in Solano County," he said.
"Most canneries have either closed or migrated south," Gnos added.
Gill said having tomatoes close to the plant controls transportation costs and the quality of the tomato - a highly perishable fruit.
Fifty acres of tomatoes is worth a gross of about $100,000, depending on the actual yield.
Gill scoffed at rumors that the tomato crop is doing badly in California.
"Overall, the tomato crop looks pretty good," he said. "I'm hearing that up and down the state."
But mother nature can change all of that at a whim, he added.
"Five days of 105 degree weather throws us out of whack, and it's everybody's guess," Gill said.
"And five days of 80 degrees puts us back," Gnos added.
The weather can ruin a crop in a matter of days, agreed Patrick Rooney, agriculture manager for Campbell. So growers in late December are given a fine-tuned schedule and start growing as early as January to keep the tomatoes rolling.
The growers are given a variety plan, delivery dates, and tonnage expected per week. Some growers plant seeds while some tomato plants come from greenhouses and are transplanted.
"So the crops are staggered," Rooney explained.
As the old song says, "you say tomato and I say tomahto" but at the Dixon Campbell plant there are all sort of names for the red fruit
"Bos3155," "Shasta," "AB2," "Peto849," "Asgrow410" and "Campbell179," - a premier variety of tomato - are the names of the processing varieties of tomatoes, said Craig Leathers, senior agriculture representative for the company.
The varieties are for paste and diced tomatoes - not the tomatoes one would find at the farmer's market.
"The supermarkets' products are completely different varieties," Leathers said. "We call these peelers or paste tomatoes," Leathers said.
Paste is used for Prego spaghetti sauce, Pace picante sauce, tomato juice, V-8, tomato soup and more, Leathers said.
Diced tomatoes also are used for different soups like vegetable beef, and Chunky-label soups. And don't forget the well loved Franco-American SpaghettiOs, he said.
In addition, Campbell makes Pepperidge Farms products and Godiva chocolate, Gruenwald said.
Last year, Campbell debuted its first organic tomato juice.
"This is our first foray into organic for Campbell's, and we have increased four-fold our organic products this year," he said. "We're excited about it."
Up to 220 trailers laden with tomatoes trundle into the plant per day under the watchful eye of Mike McEver, plant manager.
"From the time they deliver the tomatoes, they're processed in four to six hours," McEver said. "Everything we run is extremely fresh."
Tomatoes are transported to a conveyer belt that moves up to the top tier of the plant and are washed in a flume. Tomatoes bob up and down under the assault of spraying water until the dirty water is washed away.
After the tomatoes are moved to a secondary flume to be washed yet again, the next step is the conveyer belt, where workers wearing white aprons, white hair nets and latex gloves pick out stems, sticks or whatever bypassed the flumes that's not a tomato.
The next processing step is the "Hot Break System" level, where paste is made.
"Tomato paste is pure tomato with the water taken out," McEver explained. "A raw tomato is about 5 percent solid. We increase the concentration by removing the water five fold."
It takes two hours to make paste, with highly trained personnel monitoring a computerized control panel with gauges and temperatures readings. Heaters bring the tomatoes up to 200 degrees for sterilization, he said.
Next, the paste is transferred into another section of the plant, where it is pumped into wooden bins lined with a layer of plastic and covered with heavy plastic with a thick, metallic coating. Each bin holds about 300 gallons of paste, or 2,900 pounds per bin.
Again, quality and sanitation are critical. Gruenwald said when the empty bins come in, they don't even touch the ground.
The paste is pumped into a vacuum-sealed container holding the processed tomato paste and the final step before shipping is to put a silver seal to plug the filled bin. The plant also processes about 600,000 to 700,000 pounds of diced tomatoes a day.
The ingredient is destined for four major soup plants Campbell has in the U.S. - Sacramento; Paris, Texas; Napoleon, Ohio; and Maxton, N.C.
Tomatoes destined for dicing run up a conveyer belt and fall bouncing into a computer controlled container with high speed cameras. The cameras identify the green tomatoes and plastic paddles swat the green tomatoes out.
Next, they're steamed to remove the skins.
"The steam makes the peels soft," McEver explained. "By the time they head down the conveyer belt, we hope we have no more peels."
Along this conveyer belt, a line of employees in the standard net caps, ear plugs, aprons and gloves check the tomatoes for scraps of peel.
"There's always going to be a little that gets by, but not much. We have our standards to meet," McEver said.
Maria Vera, 44, works the conveyer belt checking for stray peels. An employee with Campbell for 15 years, she said she's held other jobs but enjoys coming back to Dixon each year.
"This is the best place to come - right here," she said.
And the hard work isn't a problem, she added. "I like it here. It's easy."
Gruenwald said the plant has a low turnover of employees.
"We try to make a good working environment for them, and we appreciate their talent," Gruenwald said. "It's nice to have talented and experienced people return every year."
Like Lab Manager Teresa Aguilera, 50, who is working her 20th season at Campbell. She said the seasonal job is perfect for her because it allows her to be with her children most of the year.
"I love it here," Aguilera said. "It's nice to come back here and work a couple months out of the year."
The lab is the last stop for the processed tomatoes, which come in small, vacuum sealed silver bags.
"The lab is like a scorekeeper, it tells us how we're doing," McEver said.
Gruenwald said Campbell has been putting tomatoes in a can since 1869.
"They learned early on about quality," he said. "We have a tracking system that allows us to track the tomatoes all the way from the field to the lab."
MeEver said there are occasions where the tomatoes have to be recycled or - a worst case scenario - destroyed. But not often, he said.
"We focus on quality because we want to be proud of what we've got," McEver said.
Barbara Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
AT A GLANCE
Campbell Soup Company
World headquarters: Camden, N.J. 2003 sales: $6.7 billion
Founded: 1869, by Joseph Campbell, an icebox manufacturer
In 1904, the cherubic Campbell Kids were introduced on trolley car advertisements, and the "M'm! M'm! Good" jingle made its way to television in American homes in the 1950s.
Products: Sold in 120 countries around the globe
Operations: Canada, Latin America, Europe, Asia and Australia
This year: Campbell Soup Company celebrates its 50th year of listing on the New York stock exchange, while the Campbell Kids turn 100.
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