Idaho factory bodes well for organic ag

John O'Connell/Capital Press Amy's Kitchen cofounder Rachel Berliner addresses a crowd Oct. 29 at the Pocatello Regional Airport standing by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, middle, and her company's CFO and vice president of business development, Mark Rudolph. Amy's Kitchen announced it intends to open a factory in Pocatello's former Heinz Frozen Foods plant.

POCATELLO, Idaho — State officials say a large, organic convenience food manufacturer’s recent decision to open a plant in this city’s former Heinz Frozen Foods facility should have major implications for Idaho organic agriculture.

Amy’s Kitchen, which touts itself as the nation’s leading maker of organic, non-genetically modified convenience food, plans to invest $75 million in plant upgrades, with local production of macaroni and cheese dinners commencing in December.

The company will initially staff the 500,000-square-foot plant with 200 full-time workers. As new product lines are added, Amy’s expects its workforce to reach 1,000 employees.

Heinz bought the plant from Kraft Foods in 1980 and announced plans to close last November.

Amy’s CFO and Vice President of Business Development Mark Rudolph said his company will make about $500 million in sales this year and has been growing so fast it maxed out its production capacity in January.

Amy’s made only vegetable pot pies when Rachel and Andy Berliner founded it in Sonoma County, Calif., in 1988. It now offers 250 products, including frozen meals and snacks, candy bars, cookies, canned soups, salsa and pasta sauce.

It’s named for the founders’ daughter, who now works for the company. Rachel Berliner vowed Amy’s will remain family owned.

“We had no idea we would be successful like this. It was a shock,” she said. Expansions are also planned to Amy’s plants in Medford, Ore., and Santa Rosa, Calif. Amy’s hopes to open a fourth U.S. plant in New York within three to four years.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter believes Idaho will have to step up its organic certification efforts to meet the company’s demand. The state certifies more than 200 diverse organic operations.

“One of my meetings this afternoon is going to be with Celia Gould, the secretary of agriculture for the state, to say, ‘You’d better go sit down with Amy’s Kitchen and find out what kind of volumes they’re going to need because we’re going to have to have these farmers certified within three years to grow organic potatoes, onions, carrots and beans — you name it,’” Otter said.

Rudolph said Amy’s also considered locating the new plant in California or New Mexico but wanted an existing facility to expedite its plans.

Rudolph said Amy’s, which will benefit from state and local tax incentives, likes the pool of qualified workers in Pocatello and the proximity to many of its organic potato, bean and onion growers. Rudolph hopes to find more regional organic dairy sources, noting his company will use 7 million pounds of organic cheese this year.

In New York, Amy’s has established a grant to help conventional growers through the three-year process of converting to organic production. Rudolph said something similar may be considered in Idaho.

Shoshone, Idaho, organic grower Fred Brossy has raised crops for Amy’s for 18 years, including 22 acres of spuds this season, and is delighted they’ll have a local presence. He said they pay well, especially on organic dry beans.

“Amy’s dry bean needs have been expanding for years,” Brossy said. “We try to bring new growers on, and sometimes they stick and sometimes they drop off.”

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