WILLCOX - NatureSweet, Ltd., last month laid off 70, leaving 700 total employees at its Willcox facility.
CEO Bryant Ambelang said that this latest reduction in force (RIF) occurred in the management and supervisory positions.
He told the Range News that there were not any layoffs among the workers in the greenhouses.
Ambelang said that last month’s layoffs resulted from asking the question, “How many management positions do we need for our planting program, and what is the number of people we need to fulfill that?”
“We are at that number,” with about 700 currently employed, and 60 prison inmates still working, at the Willcox facility, he said.
Asked how the tomato plants were going to be monitored, given the fact that managers and supervisors were laid off, Ambelang replied, “NatureSweet’s management is aligned to the types of crops we are now growing and the capacity we are utilizing.”
Acknowledging that in terms of layoffs, “even one is too many,” Ambelang said, “These are people’s lives. I wish we had known back in April (2013).”
That RIF constituted about 65 people out of 800 total, not including the prison inmates.
EuroFresh had about 400 inmates working for them, with harvesting as their major activity.
Ambelang said at the time that NatureSweet was looking at reducing the amount of inmate labor being used at the facility.
“I realize that it is a way for the inmates to learn skills and earn a little bit of money. And it helps them get better acclimated before they leave the prison system,” he told the Range News.
“However, we are trying to prioritize our Unionized positions. Current employees may be asked to perform a different role, and they’ll have that decision to make.”
He said that during the acquisition process, “we did not have to accept the Union contract, but we accepted it.”
Ambelang pointed out that NatureSweet had potentially 400 inmate positions to go through before it would even have to implement a RIF in the greenhouses.
In October 2013, he told the Range News,“Some people were moved out of packing and were asked to work in the greenhouse (where the prisoners worked). Some (of those asked to move) did not stay, as they were physically unable to do that work.”
He explained that since acquiring the Willcox greenhouses, the company has been shifting “the talent base to match our focus,” that is, making the transition from “a crop focused on yield to a crop focused on flavor.”
Asked if any of the Willcox greenhouses had been closed, Ambelang said, “We rotate plantings for a healthier crop.”
He explained that the EuroFresh facility “was under significant disease pressure.”
“We are rotating the greenhouses in and out according to our plan, as well as what the demand is, and what the disease is that was inside that greenhouse,” Ambelang told the Range News.
“The good news is that we are growing the best tasting tomatoes in the world,” said Ambelang, adding, “Our team is doing a great job.”
Asked about NatureSweet’s plan to import tomato seedlings from Mexico instead of Canada, Ambelang said, “We are so thankful for the support of the counties and cities,” as well as U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and U.S. Representatives Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., and Ron Barber, D-Ariz.
“The USDA is in its final week of accepting comments before makings its final decision,” Ambelang told the Range News.
“Our expectation is to be able to import seedlings by June.”
Joe Carter, former Graham County manager and chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, spoke before the Safford City Council in December 2013.
He explained that NatureSweet wants to finish the process EuroFresh began in March 2010 to obtain USDA approval to secure tomato seedlings from Mexico.
NatureSweet purchases about 18 million tomato seedlings each year, and the switch from Canadian to Mexican seedlings would save the company about $2 million, Carter said.
If approved, the company would import Mexican seedlings to both its large Willcox facility and its smaller greenhouse in Snowflake.
NatureSweet acquired EuroFresh Farms’ assets in April 2013, after the tomato grower filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier in the year. The sale was approved by the United States Bankruptcy Court to NatureSweet’s subsidiary, Zona Acquisition Company, LLC, and was concluded through an asset auction process known as a “363 sale,” which allows a company filing for bankruptcy to market its assets to bidders.
EuroFresh initially filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in April 2009 after taking on too much debt while in the process of expansion, according to then-CEO Dwight Ferguson. EuroFresh emerged from the process before the end of 2009 with an agreement to recapitalize the company with a group of investors, including founder and former CEO and President Johan van den Berg.
EuroFresh again filed for Chapter 11 in January 2013, due in part to competition from Mexico greenhouses and the inability to use Mexican seedlings, according to Carter.
(Wick Communications Reporter Jon Johnson contributed to this article.)