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Dayton lost its asparagus business to the ‘War on Drugs’ but residents persevered

Duane Dunlap, 79, stands at the now closed Green Giant housing facility in Dayton, Wash., were he managed migrant farm workers until he retired in 2002. They gutted the plant of all those machines and sent them to Peru, said Duane Dunlap, the plants former personnel manager. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
A rare undated historical photo of the asparagus packing production line the inside the Green Giant plant. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The Seneca seed processing plant it Dayton, Wash., employees about 50 locals now. When it was a asparagus processing plant, a local workforce of about 50 people swelled to more than 1,000 in the summer, as migrant workers, mostly from Texas, worked hunched over in summer heat to harvest the green spears and can them. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Maurecio Ramos started working in the asparagus fields around Dayton in 1975. He moved his family to Dayton after a few years in the fields, and eventually began doing irrigation work for the company. He left Green Giant in the early 1990s to take a job at City Lumber, a hardware store where he works today in downtown Dayton. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The plant in Dayton opened in 1934 with the name Blue Mountain Canneries and was built in just 45 days, according to records from the Dayton Historic Depot. Workers processed peas from surrounding fields at first, then added asparagus in 1939. (Dayton Historic Depot)
A relic of the past, a Green Giant cardboard cutout isnow part of the Dayton Historic Depot archive. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
A larger-than-life Jolly Green Giant still sits on the hillside above Dayton, Wash., though the plant that canned the companys asparagus left town for Peru in 2005. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

DAYTON, Wash. – Nearly every lifelong resident has at least one story about the town’s old asparagus cannery.

Ginny Butler, past president of the Dayton Historic Depot, remembers her mother and three friends took a job processing asparagus one summer to earn some extra spending money.

“They each wanted something for their house and their husbands didn’t want to buy it,” Butler said, laughing. Two of the women quit right away, but Butler’s mother stuck it out, working grueling shifts while caring for her children.

By the end of the season, she was able to buy a decorative piece to hang over the family fireplace.

For decades, the plant defined life in Dayton. Each summer an influx of about 1,000 migrant workers would join the town’s other 2,000 permanent residents. Hundreds more workers would tend the nearby fields.

And then it came to an abrupt stop. In 2005, the company moved much of its business to Peru, taking Washington’s entire asparagus canning industry with it. Farmers plowed under fields. Two other canneries closed.

“It totally wiped us out. I’ve never seen such a huge, significant industry collapse,” said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.

The culprit? Cocaine.

Growing a Giant

The Green Giant cannery, as it would come to be called, opened in 1934 after a 45-day construction blitz, according to records from the Dayton Historic Depot. Workers processed peas from surrounding fields at first, then added asparagus in 1939. The company soon created a seed research department with a greenhouse to work on improving pea seeds, and set up a labor camp in 1942 to house Mexican-American workers from Texas.

The Minnesota Valley Canning Co. merged with Blue Mountain Canneries, Inc., the plant’s original owner, in 1947. By 1950, the company was called Green Giant.

In the early years, they packed asparagus grown in the Dayton area.

The crop, which is perennial, can grow for 15 years after a single planting, though shorter periods are more typical. Once it’s done, farmers plow it up and plant something else.

Duane Dunlap, who started working as an agriculture personnel supervisor in 1966, said Green Giant would lease the fields from farmers for 20 years. When one cycle of asparagus was over, they’d move on to new land. By the 1970s, asparagus was migrating west, toward the Columbia Basin.

“Once the crop quit producing enough to be economical, you had to plow it up,” he said. “Pretty soon we had no asparagus here.”

Dunlap’s job was to recruit migrant workers. In the early years, they were mostly single men, but by about 1972, he said, the plant started recruiting families.

Children sometimes worked in the fields with their parents before the company stopped that practice, requiring kids to go to school. Women often worked in the Dayton plant receiving asparagus from all over the region.

More than 40 years later, Dunlap can still recite the towns where the company kept workers housed: Starbuck, Tucannon, Grandview, Khalotus. Many cutters lived in Dayton and were bused out before sunrise to reach the fields, working until midday. The barracks in Dayton, recently donated to the county, sit on Green Giant Camp Road.

“It just mushroomed. We had asparagus fields all over the Columbia Basin,” he said.

Mauricio Ramos started working in the asparagus fields around Dayton in 1975. His uncle began working around Dayton in 1942, when Texas migrant workers were bused up in the back of covered 10-wheeler trucks. By the time Ramos came from Eagle Pass, Texas, the workers traveled in buses with bathrooms.

Workers in the barracks woke at 4:30 a.m. and had to be ready to go to the fields by 5 a.m., Ramos said. Crews were driven to fields, about 20 miles outside of Dayton.

A 1983 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor calls for 150 plant workers, paid $4.26 per hour, or about $10.50 in today’s dollars. Cutters made at least the federal minimum wage of $3.35 an hour, but earned $11.75 per hundredweight of asparagus harvested.

“If you moved fast, it was good pay,” Ramos said.

A ‘War on Drugs’ casualty

As Washington’s asparagus fields moved toward the Tri-Cities, cocaine gripped American cities. Powdered cocaine was the king of drugs on Wall Street in the 1980s. Crack cocaine laid waste to the inner cities.

In a 1986 Gallup poll, 42 percent of Americans said crack and other forms of cocaine were the country’s most serious drug problem, besting alcohol by eight percentage points.

This was the golden age of the War on Drugs, and officials in the other Washington came up with what they thought was a good solution: go after the source. So the United States signed the Andean Trade Preference Act, which went into effect in 1991. It gave trade preference via duty-free imports and grants to Andean countries that trafficked cocaine into the U.S.

The goal was to incentivize farmers to grow crops other than coca. The U.S. Agency for International Development built irrigation infrastructure and other projects in Peru. Farmers started planting asparagus.

Asparagus crowns take a few years to mature, and farmers needed time to get the crop right. The Washington market didn’t start feeling the effects until about 2002, Schreiber said.

“Asparagus is not a hard crop to grow if you know how to grow it,” he said. Once Peru developed that knowledge, Washington’s canneries didn’t have long.

Seneca Foods was the last in a string of Dayton plant owners who canned asparagus for Green Giant, which was then owned by General Mills. General Mills made the decision to move operations to Peru in 2005, citing Washington’s high minimum wage and the lower cost of doing business in South America.

“They gutted the plant of all those machines and sent them to Peru,” Dunlap said.

Dayton’s plant was the last of three Washington asparagus canneries to close. In 2003, a Del Monte plant in Toppenish and another Seneca plant in Walla Walla stopped processing asparagus.

Ramos moved his family to Dayton after a few years in the fields, and eventually began doing irrigation work for the company. He left Green Giant in the early 1990s to take a job at City Lumber, a hardware store in downtown Dayton. His wife spent about a decade in the plant, earning better wages than she could have gotten in Texas.

By the time he left Green Giant, Ramos said, rumors about the cannery’s closure were always floating around. The asparagus fields had already moved out of Dayton further west.

“That year when they closed it, they didn’t say anything. They just did it,” he said.

Jennie Dickinson, now the Port of Columbia manager, was the director of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce at the time of the closure. She said Seneca had been talking about Washington’s minimum wage for a long time before the closure, saying they couldn’t raise prices to make up the increased costs.

“You can only get so much for a can of asparagus,” she said.

Peru deal a local bust

Cocaine still comes to the U.S. from Peru, though the amount of coca growing in the Andean highlands has fallen since the 1990s. Whether Peruvian asparagus production has helped depends on whom you ask.

The Peruvian government and White House drug policy office have both defended the trade preference, saying many asparagus farmers came from coca-producing regions.

Schreiber doesn’t buy it. Coca is usually grown in the Andean highlands, while asparagus does best at sea level. A 2015 map by the Peruvian government showing hot spots for coca cultivation has almost no overlap with asparagus growing areas.

“They’re the No. 1 exporter of coca and the No. 1 exporter of asparagus,” Schreiber said.

That may not be strictly true – Colombian coca production surged in 2015, putting it ahead of Peru – but Peru has historically been and continues to be a major coca supplier.

USAID sent a little over $384 million in foreign aid to Peru in 2015, the last year for which complete data was available. About a third of that was spent on the Andean Counter Drug Program, and more on other law enforcement related to narcotics. Peru’s agriculture sector got $24 million.

The amount of coca grown in Peru has fallen nearly 70 percent since 1992, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 1992, farmers planted 129,100 hectares. By 2015, that was down to 40,300 hectares. A hectare is the equivalent of approximately 2 1/2 acres.

But it’s debatable whether that fall is because of asparagus. The largest reductions in acreage, according to the UN data, occurred in the mid- and late 1990s, before asparagus production took off. The Peruvian government also eradicated tens of thousands of hectares in the 2010s.

From asparagus to seed

Whether it helped stop cocaine trafficking or not, Dayton residents know the plant isn’t coming back.

The white brick outline of a larger-than-life Jolly Green Giant still sits on a hillside above town, well-maintained now after some years in disrepair.

“My husband says, ‘Take it down, they’re not here anymore.’ I say, ‘We’re still the Valley of the Jolly Green Giant,’ ” Dickinson said.

The cannery was the largest private employer in Dayton at the time of its closure. But, Dickinson said, most of the jobs lost were people near retirement age. Seneca kept 10 workers on to work processing seeds, a business still going strong in the old Green Giant location.

Dayton’s culture during harvest and packing season changed right away. Dayton children used to look forward to seeing their friends, the children of migrant workers, in class each spring.

“It was kind of a domino effect,” said Brad McMasters, who was a third-grade student teacher when the plant closed, and now does economic development work for the Port. The laundromat closed, and a few bars shut down.

The workers often gathered in public spaces, sitting on downtown benches and socializing. Hearing Spanish on the street was common. Butler, the Dayton Historic Depot board member, said that sense of community was missing after the closure.

“I just felt like the fabric of Dayton was thinner,” Butler said. Some families, like Ramos’, stayed in the area, but many left for the Tri-Cites or other asparagus areas.

The economic impact of the closure would have hit harder, but wind power was booming just as Seneca moved asparagus to Peru. PacifiCorp began building the Marengo Wind Farm the same year, bringing in new construction jobs and some permanent jobs maintaining the turbines. A second farm, Hopkins Ridge, went in the following year, and a third came soon after.

Without those, “I can’t even imagine what would have happened to us,” Dickinson said.

Seneca has been expanding its seed processing operations. Plant manager Chris Shires said it employs about 50 people, half of whom are full time and half of whom work about 10 months a year. In the past six months, they’ve tripled their volume and now process 30 million pounds of pea, garbanzo and wheat seeds per year for three companies.

Because of that expansion, they’re now using the full space once occupied by the asparagus cannery.

Washington’s asparagus canning industry won’t come back, something Schreiber said he’s still bitter about. He’s worked to reinvent Washington asparagus as a fresh crop, but said hundreds of people lost money when the plants shut down: farmers who plowed under fields, businesses who sold groceries and gas to migrant workers, families that relied on the income from plant workers.

“It’s been a rough, gut-wrenching era,” he said.

Dunlap retired from Seneca in 2002 and has since been active in the Blue Mountain Heritage Society, which recently restored a one-room schoolhouse from the county’s early days and moved it into downtown Dayton. He sits on the board and did much of the painting to bring the old classroom back to life.

For Dickinson, the loss of lifelong company workers like Dunlap will be the true loss to Dayton. Wind farms provide good jobs, but the young people who take them often move up in the energy company and leave for a bigger city. Asparagus gave Dayton a supply of company men who retired, stayed in town and can give back now with community service.

But between tax revenue from wind farms, a budding local food movement and the town’s proximity to a small ski area, hiking and agrotourism, Dayton isn’t in danger of becoming a ghost town.

“We’re just not going to dry up and blow away like a lot of farm towns,” Dickinson said.