Community disappointed with Sunland closing

By Christina Calloway

PNT senior writer

ccalloway@pntonline.com

Roosevelt County community leaders summed up the news repeatedly in a single word: sad.

“We’re just very saddened by the news after they tried so hard to rebound from their problems with the (Food and Drug Administration) that Sunland was unable to continue,” said Roosevelt County Chamber of Commerce Director Karl Terry.

Sunland Inc., the nation’s largest organic peanut butter processor, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy Wednesday, closing its doors after 25 years and leaving about 100 employees without jobs.

“It’s a pretty sad day for Portales and I think it’s a sad day for the idea of free enterprise,” Terry said.

“In my book, they were a model for finding a niche and doing it through free enterprise. They did it through a co-op of growers and it’s sad they are taken down by something like this.”

A company press release said ongoing financial and liquidity challenges made it necessary for the company to file for bankruptcy from the impact of a voluntary product recall and a government-enforced plant shutdown last year. Its products were linked to a salmonella outbreak that caused 41 illnesses in 20 states.

Portales Mayor Sharon King posted a statement on her Facebook page, lamenting the closure.

“Sunland has been an outstanding employer to our community for decades,” she wrote. “Most of the city is funded with gross receipts taxes. The close of any business, but especially one the size of Sunland, impacts the city’s budget and the services we can provide our residents. … Their closure will literally affect everyone in Portales directly or indirectly. Very sad day for our community.”

King said Sunland had been a generous donor to Eastern New Mexico University, the Chamber of Commerce, United Way, Roosevelt County Junior Livestock Board and several other organizations in Roosevelt County.

Roosevelt County Commission Chairman Bill Cathey hopes the community can bounce back from this loss.

“It’s a bad deal. I feel sorry for all the employees and I’d sure hate to lose a business like that,” Cathey said.

Cathey said its closure will hurt many, including the Roosevelt County Electric Cooperative, because Sunland was one of its largest customers.

“I blame the FDA for the majority of the problems; the regulations, it was just a bad deal,” Cathey said.

Lizeth “Lala” Chavez, 35, was a shift supervisor for the nut butter side of Sunland’s plants. She said she was called in for a meeting Wednesday that wasn’t during her normal working hours and the news of the closure caught her off guard.

“I was sad of course because we had worked hard to comeback from the recall,” Chavez said. “We made it through that then when this happened, it was a hard hit. We thought we were back on our feet.”

Chavez, who worked for Sunland for seven years, said she stayed around to help the plant reopen after it shuttered last fall from the recall. It was hard for her to see employees go then, come back and now leave for good.

But for Chavez, the closure has a bit of a silver lining because now she’ll be able to spend more time with her three children, something that was hard to do before with her job.

“I’m going to take some time off and re-evaluate what I’m doing and spend some time with my kids,” Chavez said.

She described Sunland as her second home.

“We were all very close there. Everyone looked out for each other and helped each other out,” Chavez said. “It was a great company to work for and I enjoyed it. It will be hard to say goodbye because of the strong bond we had there. They were all good workers, all hard workers, and gave 100 percent. That’s one of the hardest parts and for some reason it had to happen this way, but we’ll survive somehow.”

FYI

Portales and Roosevelt County

Major employers (2009)

Big Valley Ford 30

C & S Oil Co. 35

Cattle Baron Restaurant 45

City of Portales 150

DairiConcepts Milk Solids Plant 142

Dairy employees (estimate) 1,050

Eastern New Mexico University 1,552

Hampton Farms/Portales Select Peanuts 65

La Casa de Buena Salud Healthcare 100

Portales IGA Grocers 150

Portales Municipal Schools 383

Portales National Bank 85

Roosevelt County Electric Cooperative 40

Roosevelt General Hospital 240

Sodexho Food Services — ENMU 50

Southwest Coca Cola Canners 78

Sunland Inc. 140

Super Walmart 220

WDT Trucking 115

Source: Roosevelt County Economic Development Corp.

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