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The first blossoms on green bean plants trigger the start of the busy season at Lakeside Foods in New Richmond.

Erica Kunze, human resources manager at the canning facility, waits for those tiny flowers to appear in early summer and then takes a deep breath to brace herself.

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"Then I can start making arrangements," Kunze said.

What follows is a mad dash for six months as the processing plant cans and packages more than 5 million cases of vegetables.

But it's more than just an industrial challenge.

Kunze's job includes coordinating travel, meals and housing for a group of 250 seasonal workers who help the company feed thousands worldwide.

The canning company used to rely on local workers to fill the temporary jobs. These days officials contract with Hispanic, Jamaican and Polish workers to do the work.

Recruiting

In late winter, Kunze flies to Laredo, Texas to begin recruiting potential Hispanic workers who travel the country to find good-paying jobs during the growing season.

Lakeside is among several multi-national companies that arrive in southern Texas in early spring to find workers.

Kunze's goal is to sign up 250 or more workers to fill the company's short-term needs. Migrant workers will be employed from approximately July 10 through Nov. 15.

This year Kunze recruited 140 workers and signed them to employment contracts. Only about 90 of the Hispanic workers actually showed up. Most arrived in the Twin Cities via bus over the past month.

Lakeside learned a lesson from its workforce shortage last year, when the processing plant operated with 50 fewer workers than they were seeking.

"You can't have that," Kunze said. "You can imagine what that does to the rest of the workforce. It's hard on everybody."

This year, Lakeside has employed workers from Poland and Jamaica to fill out its seasonal roster.

"It's kind of fun," said Kunze, who has been working at the local plant for nine years and before migrant workers were first hired. "You have a diversity of people, and you get to talk to people from different cultures."

Shifting gears

The former Friday Canning Company, an economic powerhouse in the region since 1925, has employed a lot of local people over the years.

"Fridays has had a huge impact on the community, " Kunze said. "There are not very many people who haven't been affected by the plant."

Kunze married a native Star Prairie resident four years ago. His father, uncles and other relatives all worked at the canning plant at various times.

But over the past decade, Kunze said, fewer local workers were willing to work on a seasonal basis.

"People needed benefits and a full-time, steady income to make it," she said.

Hiring high school and college students wasn't the best option, because the operation needs employees to stay through the fall.

With no other way to find a large seasonal workforce, the plant turned to the migrant worker option.

Over the years, Friday Canning had hired a handful of Hispanic and Jamaican workers to get through its busy season. But for most of its history they relied on local workers.

In 1998, the company (owned by Chiquita Processed Foods at that point) went through a major expansion doubling its canning ability. Output jumped from 2.5 million cases up to almost 5 million, and even more seasonal workers were needed to accomplish the work.

"We have to stay competitive and you have to expand to do that," Kunze explained. "We have a low profit margin, so you have to produce more."

The move put a further squeeze on the local available seasonal workforce.

In 1999, a dozen Hispanic workers made the trip north to work 10- and 12-hour shifts at the canning facility, tucked off behind New Richmond's rail line along North First Street. By the next growing season, migrant worker numbers doubled. This year the seasonal workers will approach 250.

With only limited numbers of recruits from Texas, Kunze said the company is beginning to look at other options.

This season temporary employees include 40 local workers, 90 Hispanic migrant workers, 40 people from Jamaica and 20 students from Poland. Many of the seasonal employees return to New Richmond year after year, because they like the company and the community.

"They're not only excited to be working here, but they're also excited to be working so many hours," Kunze said.

For migrant workers, the name of the game is work hard in the summer to make money that will last them the rest of the year.

Some want to work so much that Lakeside was forced to implement rules limiting schedules to six straight days.

"Nobody should have to work seven days a week," Kunze said. "For your safety and your sanity, it really is for the best."

The visiting workers join 67 full-time, year-round employees who ensure that the canned vegetables get to customers.

Weeding out illegals

Lakeside takes special precautions to make sure that migrant workers who are employed here are legal.

Kunze said the company's Hispanic migrant worker coordinator works with her to weed out applicants with false documents.

"That's one of the first things we check out," she said. "Everyone we hire is going to be legal. He's (Alfonso Portillo) very good at detecting that. He's been dealing with this for years."

Life on campus

Lakeside has room to house 100 individual workers in dorms constructed on the company's property.

Officials plan to complete work on the basement of the newest dormitory in the coming months, which will allow for an additional 30 people to live on-site. The company hopes to provide rooms for couples in the new section of the dorm.

The company also supplies a dining hall for the workers. Lakeside hires cooks who are skilled at preparing authentic dishes that the employees are used to. This year a Hispanic and Jamaican cook have been hired.

A hefty breakfast and supper are served at the dining facility. The migrant workers are charged $3 for breakfast and $3.50 for dinner, if they choose to eat there. Some occasionally head into town to eat at local restaurants.

The dining hall serves as the migrant workers' community hall during much of the day.

A television, hooked up to a satellite service, broadcasts a Spanish-speaking channel. A pay phone provides access to family and friends back home, although expensive international calling cards only provide limited minutes.

Once the migrant camp is filled to capacity, Lakeside pays for lodging for migrant workers at The Lowrey Hotel in downtown New Richmond.

Some seasonal employees also rent from landlords throughout the community. Five or six of the migrant workers who bring their families to town for the season try to find larger living quarters.

Lakeside operations

Lakeside contracts with farmers across the region to grow crops used for canning. Producers from New Richmond, Hammond, Roberts, River Falls, St. Croix Falls, Chetek and other towns help to meet the demand.

The first wave of summer work comes in July as beans are canned at Lakeside. Corn comes a few weeks later, followed by root crops (carrots, potatoes and beets).

"You make hay while the sun shines," Kunze said. "Sometimes you work 12 to 14 hours a day. That's just how it is."

Lakeside's field department, which includes about 25 employees, heads to their picking sites in a caravan of machinery. Truckers ship the product back to the plant for processing.

Dry conditions this summer have Lakeside officials worried.

"It's going to have an impact," Kunze admitted. "We've lost a certain part of our crop, but we can come back."

During the off-season, Lakeside continues to operate its warehouse and ships products worldwide. The full-time staff spends the down time of winter to complete maintenance on the facility and fine-tune their canning process to become even more efficient.

Last year, Lakeside completed work on a 130,000-square-foot warehouse addition to reduce storage costs and improve efficiency.

The capital improvements show that Lakeside has a commitment to the New Richmond plant and its workforce.

When the company was sold to Lakeside in 2003, Kunze said the operation became much more employee-friendly.

"Chiquita kind of left a bad taste in people's mouths," she said. "Now, people are very proud and happy to be working here. It reminds us more of the Friday years."

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