Editor’s note: This is No. 1 news story in 2013 as determined by PNT staff.
By Alisa Boswell
CMI staff writer
Portales, most of eastern New Mexico and even its workers were stunned in October when Sunland Inc. filed for bankruptcy and closed its doors.
Ultimately, the nation’s largest organic peanut producer was unable to recover from a national product recall after a salmonella outbreak was linked to the plant in the fall of 2012.
“It’s just a heartbreak,” said Terri Lancaster, who was among the 100 employees laid off during a company-wide meeting Oct. 9. “There was quite a bit of crying because we’re a lot like family.”
Lancaster, 47, who started at Sunland in the packaging room nine years ago and worked her way up to an assistant manager position, described herself as being in a state of disbelief because she had no clue the closure was coming.
“We worked really hard to make a comeback and thought we were (continually) headed that way,” Lancaster said.
Sunland restarted full operations in the spring and was expecting to get its peanut butter products back on store shelves by summer.
“People were very concerned about the loss of jobs,” Roosevelt County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karl Terry said Tuesday. “I think the fact that it was a homegrown business beginning to thrive nationally made it tough on people.”
Terry said more than anything, he saw Portales residents step up to help, but he also saw the impact on people as individuals.
“It’s been pretty startling and created a void, even on the smaller retail level,” Terry said. “I’ve had calls from people all over the country asking where they can get peanuts and peanut butter, especially right before Christmas. People just didn’t know where else to go to get it. They had always gotten it from Sunland.”
The 100 workers were not the only ones impacted by Sunland closing its doors. Regional farmers in west Texas and eastern New Mexico, who had contracts with Sunland, were trying to sell their crops elsewhere for significantly less money.
Terry and Mayor Sharon King said they have high hopes for seeing another company occupying the Sunland building soon.
“We are still working with former (Sunland CEO Jimmy Shearer) to get somebody else in there and I think we will have someone before too long,” King said.
The latest news concerning the closed plant is an order by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge David Thuma allowing Trustee Clarke Coll to reopen the plant with a skeletal crew for one year in order to sell the plant’s assets.
Under the order, Coll is authorized to hire employees for delivery of customer inventory left on the plant’s floor. The plant’s inventory includes brand new equipment purchased within the last year.
According to court documents, Sunland began bankruptcy proceedings in April, one month after the Portales City Council approved awarding $150,000 in Local Economic Development Act (LEDA) funds to the company.
City Manager Doug Redmond said Sunland officials never said anything about bankruptcy or money problems during negotiations that began in early March. Quite the opposite, Redmond said, Shearer presented the city with financial statements indicating the company was solvent and had just received a $3 million loan from a Denver bank to purchase new equipment.