Farmworker town loses long-time employer

Quantities of organic yellow nectarines stored in Prima Wawona packing crates. Photo courtesy of the Prima Wawona Instagram page.

Community of Cutler loses its largest employer as Prima Wawona facility ceases processing stone fruit and laid off workers apply for jobs elsewhere

CUTLER – The latest victim in the Prima Wawona bankruptcy is also its largest – the community of Cutler.

The farmworker town in northern Tulare County will indefinitely feel the loss of the “Wawona” packing house, which at one time employed nearly twice as many people as the community’s 4,400 residents. Prima Wawona was once one of the largest growers of peaches, plums, and nectarines in the nation. The 300,000 square foot packing house and cold storage along Avenue 408 was not only a fixture on the edge of town but also lifeline for those residents seeking work without access to transportation.

Since the Fresno Bee reported that various farming interests have bought pieces of the former empire, residents of Cutler are now faced with the reality the packing house will not pack tree fruit this season for the first time in decades when harvest begins in just a few short weeks.

The Fresno-based processing company filed for bankruptcy last October and then sent a letter to more than 5,400 workers in January, including 3,750 seasonal workers, that they would likely be laid off as early as March 12. The company also began preparations to sell 13,000 acres of farmland, mostly planted to peaches and nectarines that were packed in Reedley and Cutler.

In a television interview last month, Supervisor Eddie Valero who represents northern Tulare County said, “My heart hurts for the people who have had to be let go of this job that they have. For years the packing plant in Cutler has provided many jobs and helped locals pay their mortgages and put food on the table.”

Former employees at the Cutler packing house shared memories on Facebook recently with some saying they had been side-by-side with colleagues for over 20 years at the packing house at the edge of town. One source with Moonlight Packing, one the buyers reported in the Bee, says they will use existing packinghouses owned by the company, packing fruit in Reedley and Sanger to get the job done.

Confirming the news, other local packers say workers from the Cutler plant have been applying elsewhere for work this season.

An even clearer signal that the packinghouse will stay idle this season comes with news that the big Cutler plant is for sale with local realtor Schuil Ag Real Estate.

“It will be going on the market,” confirms realtor Rick Schuil, although he could not yet offer details as of our deadline.

As of last month, over 90 percent of the land was sold with Bakersfield citrus grower Sun Pacific and Reedley-based Moonlight Companies combining to buy 5,000 acres for $91 million, according to the Bee. Each has their own extensive packing operations.

OTHER NEWS:

Rooftop solar installations in Tulare County have sunk by two-thirds in the first quarter of 2024. The drop off follows the expiration of most statewide solar incentive programs, which the state has been rolling back since 2016. There are still federal tax incentives available to homeowners interested in adding solar panels to their roofs.

Through April 11, there have only been 2,181 solar rooftop installations in Tulare County compared with 6,843 during the same time last year, according to Construction Monitor, an industry trade website.

Last year the state made big changes to its solar net-metering policy, reducing its buy back of excess energy generated by home systems by two-thirds from 30 cents per kilowatt hour to just 8 cents.

Critics have knocked the new policy which made solar a lot less attractive for homeowners.
The decline is unfortunate as there will be many more roofs to generate power. New home construction is up in the first quarter in Tulare County with 296 permits for new homes pulled as of April 11 compared with 221 permits during the same time last year. That’s still down from 323 new home permits for this time in 2022 but least the pace has picked up from last year.
Gas prices may be driving some inflation but demand for gasoline is on average down this spring, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Gasoline and oil prices are up based on fears about the Middle East, but Americans seem more concerned with the price at the grocery store than the cost of getting there. Food prices as of March were up 2.2% although dining at restaurants was up 4.2%

As of April 11, the producer price index, a measure of inflation at the wholesale level, increased 0.2% for the month, less than the 0.3% estimate from the Dow Jones average. Farmers are getting 40% less for their milk than they were in early 2022. USDA says egg prices have been lower than 2023 all year, although they are up slightly this week after bird flu concerns.

Start typing and press Enter to search