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Frowns in the valley of the jolly Green Giant : Le Sueur laments the impending closure of its original cannery, from which the icon sprouted.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To most people, he’s just a familiar green hulk in a leafy toga who peddles vegetables.

But here in his birthplace, the Green Giant is a beloved icon and institution. So the recent announcement that the nation’s original Green Giant processing plant will close Feb. 8 struck pain into the hearts of the people who live in the valley of the jolly Green Giant.

“I think you could compare it almost to a death in your family,” said Tim McPartland, the Green Giant plant’s manufacturing manager. He has the grim task of overseeing the shutdown of the old yellow brick plant--quiet now except for the crews methodically dismantling the machinery.

As recently as last summer, the Le Sueur plant processed 2 million cases of canned corn--mostly cream style--and nearly 1 million cases of peas. Overhead conveyors carried some 50 tons of vegetables an hour across the town’s main street.

But the thunder of machinery here is over for good. And so are 27 year-round and 430 Green Giant seasonal jobs.

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The Minneapolis-based Pillsbury Co. recently announced plans to close four Green Giant plants in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin and to sell six others to Seneca Foods Corp., which will process canned Green Giant vegetables.

One of the fatalities is this plant. “It’s the loss of part of our history, our identity,” said Richard Almich, La Sueur city administrator.

The business was founded here in 1903 by 14 local merchants. As it was named then, Minnesota Valley Canning Co. produced 11,750 cases of white cream-style corn in its first year. In those days people refused to eat yellow corn, disdaining it as horse food. Peas were added a few years later.

It was a modest beginning for the Green Giant brand that today claims more than $800 million in annual sales worldwide.

“I think it’s awful,” said Ann Burns, a retired 21-year employee of the company, standing in the Green Giant Room at the Le Sueur Museum. “The first thing I thought of is, now where will the children work during the summer months?” The room is filled with archival photos, artifacts and promotional gizmos including Green Giant watches, coffee mugs and corn-on-the-cob holders.

Pillsbury has decided to get out of the business of canning vegetables.

Profit margins are better in simply owning, selling and promoting the Green Giant brand and hiring someone else to can familiar lines.

“Increasingly, we’re faced with the dilemma of how to increase competitiveness in an industry becoming more and more commodity-like,” said Pillsbury spokesman Terry Thompson. The move cuts costs and frees more money for marketing, he said.

The words “Green Giant” first described some large, wrinkled, sweet peas canned by the company, but the adjectives couldn’t be patented. So an attorney came up with the idea of creating the giant’s likeness in 1925. His white skin eventually turned green. The company name was changed to Green Giant Co. in 1950.

A towering jolly Green Giant will continue to welcome visitors to his birthplace from a huge billboard just outside of town.

And Pillsbury has decided to retain the town’s 24 jobs remaining in seed development, technology, research and development and marketing. Unemployment is low in this town of fewer than 4,000 residents nestled in the rolling Minnesota River Valley just outside the Twin Cities area, and the town hopes to attract another user to the site of the old brick plant and warehouse.

The company story illustrates how today’s conglomerate-dominated food business often works. Pillsbury bought Green Giant in 1979 and moved corporate headquarters out of Le Sueur, before itself being consumed by a larger company. Now Pillsbury operates as a subsidiary of Grand Metropolitan PLC, and Green Giant is simply a brand.

McPartland began working for Green Giant in college. Although he’s not worried about his work prospects and expects to go into business for himself, McPartland feels the region will lose something vital. “It’s just a sadness and loss of heritage,” he said.

“It was a surprise,” said Mayor Jack King, recalling eight summers spent working in the plant. “Green Giant holds a very soft place in my heart,” he said.

King said it really hurt in 1979 when Green Giant headquarters were moved to Pillsbury offices in Minneapolis. Hundreds of blue-collar and white-collar jobs were lost. “We were much more of a one-employer town and Green Giant was the big gun in town,” he said. Since then the town has drawn an electronics plant, a communications equipment manufacturer and a pet food plant, and has expanded its local creamery and casting company.

Burns is one of a close-knit group of retired Green Giant employees known as the Golden Ambassadors. They meet weekly and are active in promoting and maintaining the museum, which receives up to 1,000 visitors yearly.

“We’re proud of it,” Burns said. “It’s a thrill to say: ‘I’m from the valley of the jolly Green Giant.’ ”


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