Conagra celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Dresden tomato processing plant; employees, farmers benefited from facilities

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DRESDEN – Many residents and farmers in the Dresden region have lived well – and for many a good retirement – ​​thanks to the presence of a tomato processing factory here.

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Food processing giant Conagra Brands Inc. held a party on Sunday to celebrate the 75e anniversary of the tomato processing factory, which opened on Wellington Street in Dresden in 1947.

“It’s something so special that the Dresden community has here with this facility, the history, the employees and just their passion,” said plant manager Simon Hogervorst.

He noted that generations of families have worked at the factory as well as generations of farming families who have grown the tomatoes processed there.

“It’s so special to see how the facility is so integrated into the community, the families and the surrounding area,” Hogervorst said.

Today, the approximately 200 employees at the Conagra plant and about 200 other seasonal workers during the fresh-pack season work processing seven million cans a year.

Former plant manager Dave Hoyles, who started at the plant in 1980 as a front-line supervisor, said: “I think automation and innovation are the two most important things I saw change.

“When I came here, everything was basically done by hand,” he added. “It was hand-peeled, hand-cored.”

Having risen through the ranks to plant manager in 1987, Hoyles said it was the people who made the job so enjoyable.

“Literally, I was spending 80% of my day on the floor, walking around talking to people, finding out what was right, what was wrong – trying to accentuate the good and eliminate the bad,” said he declared.

Hoyles served as plant manager until 2005, before moving to Toronto with the company and retiring in 2012 after 32 years.

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The presence of a tomato processing plant in Dresden dates back to 1903, when Canadian Canners opened its doors.

Longtime Dresden city politician Joe Faas, who worked at the factory for a season more than 50 years ago, said: ‘In my opinion, the city of Dresden would be very different from what it is. today, if we didn’t. have the preserves.

He recalls when the factory produced spinach, asparagus, beets and potatoes as well as tomatoes, adding that the facility provided good jobs and also benefited the local farming community.

Faas said many employees have been able to “get out of school, stay here, and have a career here.”

He said guys like Hoyles and Donny Roberts rose through the ranks to plant manager.

Infrastructure, such as a sewage treatment plant and a Lake Erie water supply, might not have been in Dresden today without the plant, Faas said.

“It’s a great testament to what an industry can do for a community.”

Bob Vandeweghe is one of the employees who rose through the ranks and made a career at the plant.

He started working on March 24, 1962 on asparagus farms as a tractor driver.

“In 1966 I was transferred to the factory and started as a supervisor in 1981,” Vandeweghe said, adding that he retired on December 31, 2004 after 42 years.

“It was great working, we had a lot of different owners, we had a lot of different names, and they were all good,” he said.

When he started working at the factory, Vandeweghe said: “It was not uncommon to work 12-hour shifts.

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“At that time you were doing a lot of manual work, but as technology took over,” he added.

Hoyles also got to know the local growers who supplied the tomatoes for processing; adding that he also knows their fathers and some of their grandfathers.

Hoyles said negotiating contracts and terms can be adversarial at times, but once an agreement is reached “you shake hands and we get along.”

Brothers Sam and John Janovicek followed in their father Paul’s footsteps to grow tomatoes for the plant.

Sam Janovicek said his father used to farm for Libbey’s, but noted that a field man came to the farm one day and said, “‘Paul, you should farm for the canneries,’ and he decided to do it.”

He has seen a lot of changes over the year in the tomato industry, noting, “Tomatoes used to be picked and put in baskets and now it’s in bulk and we use harvesters, we don’t have need too much help.

John Janovicek said the brothers have been involved in growing tomatoes for the plant most of their lives.

“We were in the tomato field when mom was picking,” he said.

When asked what the factory meant to the family, John Janovicek said, “She paid a lot of bills, she did us good.

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