Conagra celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Dresden tomato processing plant; employees, farmers have 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 tomato processing plant here.

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Food processing giant Conagra Brands Inc. held a party on Sunday to celebrate the 75e anniversary of this 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 around 200 other seasonal workers during the fresh-pack season work to process seven million cans a year.

Former plant manager Dave Hoyles, who started at the plant in 1980 as a front-line supervisor, said ‘automation and innovation’ were the two biggest changes he’s witnessed during his career.

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

Having worked his way up to plant manager in 1987, Hoyles said it was the people he worked with that 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.

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

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

Longtime Dresden city politician Joe Faas, who worked at the plant for a season more than 50 years ago, suggested that Dresden “would be very different from what it is today if we didn’t ‘didn’t have the canneries’.

He recalls when the plant processed spinach, asparagus, beets and potatoes, as well as tomatoes, saying the facility provided good jobs while benefiting 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 locals like Hoyles and Donny Roberts were able to work their way up to factory managers.

Infrastructure, such as a sewage treatment plant and a water supply from Lake Erie, probably wouldn’t be in Dresden today without the Conagra plant, Faas said.

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

Bob Vandeweghe is another employee who has had a rewarding career at the Dresden plant.

He started working there on March 24, 1962, driving tractors around asparagus farms in the area.

“In 1966 I was transferred to the factory and started as a supervisor in 1981,” said Vandeweghe, who 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.”

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When he started working at the factory, Vandeweghe said it was not “unusual to work 12-hour shifts”.

“At that time, you were doing a lot of manual work, but over time technology took over,” Vandeweghe noted.

Hoyles also got to know the local growers who supplied the tomatoes from the plant, saying he also knew many of their fathers and some of their grandfathers.

Hoyles said negotiating contracts and terms could be adversarial at times, but once an agreement was reached, they “shook hands and we got on wonderfully”.

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 until one day a field man came by the farm and suggested he ‘grow for the canneries’ and ‘he decided to do it’ .

He said he had seen a lot of changes over the years in the tomato industry.

“Before, tomatoes were picked and put in baskets, and now it’s in bulk and we use harvesters,” he said. “We should not be too dependent on aid.”

John Janovicek said the brothers have been involved in growing tomatoes for the plant pretty much their entire lives.

“We were in the tomato field when mom was picking. … (The factory has) paid a lot of bills, it has been good for us,” he said.

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