The reaction: School officials reflect on the news major

employer will cease operating

Jessica Keller Argus Observer

NYSSA

Nyssa School District officials moved quickly Wednesday to address a number of short-term worries and to assist students and staff members, as news one of this town's biggest employers was shutting down.

While the long-term impacts from the production halt at Amalgamated Sugar are largely unknown, the district wanted to be proactive to address short-term concerns.

Nyssa School District Superintendent Don Grotting said he first learned of Amalgamated Sugar's indefinite closure Wednesday morning. As soon as the news had been confirmed he began alerting school district officials.

He addressed the principals of each of the Nyssa schools and staff supervisors from different departments, breaking the news, and told them to begin planning out methods to assist students and staff members.

Grotting said he understands the magnitude of the production halt, perhaps better than others.

Before he entered the education field, Grotting worked for a Georgia Pacific factory back east.

When that plant closed in town, he and many others were unemployed and displaced. After the GP closure, Grotting then went to school and received his education degree.

"I have a closeness to this," Grotting said, adding he understands the stress radiates through a community and then from parents to children.

Once the principals and other supervisors were told of the closure, they reported the news at their respective schools and departments to most staff members. Staff members who have spouses or immediate family at the factory were not told because administrators' were sensative the news was so great.

Officials decided it was better those individuals with direct connections to the plant should learn of the closure from family members.

Nyssa Middle School counselor Kimi Casad said when they were told, a sense of panic and shock quickly descended.

"It was just very eerie," Casad said. "It was like 'oh my gosh.' It was a big blow."

Which is why it was necessary to be prepared for what was to come, assistant superintendent Janine Weeks said.

She and Casad and Nyssa High School counselor Barbara Martell discussed the best strategy to help students affected by the factory closure.

At least 85 students in the school district have one or more parents who work at the factory, Weeks said.

"When you think 85 kids, that's a lot of kids," Weeks said.

It is likely many of those students' families will be impacted by layoffs.

Weeks said students may begin to let their grades drop, or they may begin acting out, withdrawing or appear sad or depressed.

Weeks and the two counselors said teachers need to recognize signs of unhappiness or stress and take action if that happens, either by talking to the student or referring them to the school counselors. Weeks and the counselors agreed the factory shut- down affected everybody because the sugar plant played such a central role in Nyssa through the years.

"And I think that's the 'bigness' of the whole situation," Casad said. "It's that everybody is either related to somebody who worked at the factory or knows somebody who relates back to the factory."

Before yesterday, rumors of the closure circulated through town, but Weeks, Casad and Martell agreed that rumors of a shut down were not unusual and happen every year.

When the closure was actually announced Weeks said she was stunned.

"Maybe it was wishful thinking that it was just another rumor," Weeks said.

There was no real way to prepare before it happened, she said. Now that it has occurred, Weeks said the school district is prepared to help as much as possible. Rather than announce the news to the entire student body for each school, Weeks said most likely the individual teachers will work the topic into one of their lessons and allow conversation from there.Weeks said in times of stress, school is considered a constant, something that can be relied on always to be there - a safety net, she said, in many of the same ways Amalgamated was Nyssa's safety net.

"We want to help the students and staff in whatever way we can without taking away that safety net," she said.

The Cost: Nearly 190 full time employees are without work as TASCO orders halt in production

Larry Meyer Argus Observer

NYSSA

After more than 60 years of continuous processing, there will not be a 2005 campaign at Nyssa's Amalgamated Sugar Company plant in the fall.

The announcement Wednesday by the company's board of directors to implement a production halt immediately affected about 190 full time employees. The production freeze could also leave more than 500 people without the usual seasonal jobs.

While there will still be sugar beets grown in the lower Treasure Valley, they will all be shipped to the Nampa sugar plant, one of three facilities the company operates in Idaho.

The company, however, will keep the brown sugar operation at the Nyssa plant going which will continue to employ more than 30 people.

Ralph Burton, president and chief executive officer for Amalgamated Sugar, confirmed the employees were immediately put on administrative leave.

"We've effectively closed down," he said, adding a few will be called back as needed. "Only a minimal amount of work is going to done there for a minimal amount of time."

Burton said in the company announcement, "Nyssa is a well-run factory. This decision has nothing to do with the quality of work or management at the Nyssa factory - simply the economics of supporting excess capacity with no apparent relief in sight."

In a phone interview he said, "There is no need to have four factories (operating) when the work can be done in three."

People in the plant's agriculture department will not be affected, he said, since farmers will still be growing sugar beets. There will be 30 to 40 construction jobs at other factories for some, Burton added, But, "it's clear 100 or so will be looking for other things to do this summer."

While the company announcement called the closure temporary, and only referred to the 2005 crop, Burton declined to comment when the plant would be reopened.

"We're approaching this one year at a time," he said.

Explaining the company's position, Burton said Amalgamated Sugar is facing a squeeze brought about by an array of forces. Some of those factors include excess production capacity along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's marketing allotments that limit the amount of sugar it can sell and the trade pressures from foreign producers, which is contributing to the excess supply of sugar available to the U.S. market.

"Something had to give, and after careful review the board decided to reduce production capacity, as well as acreage, to decrease operating costs and improve beet payments," he said.

Burton said the decision to close was months in the making.

He said the increased efficiency of the national sugar industry, combined with the dramatic pressure that has been placed on the industry by U.S. trade and marketing policy and dietary changes have caused the entire domestic sugar industry to struggle.

While the North American Trade Agreement and other agreements are already in place, the Central American Free Trade Agreement is coming up for a vote in Congress in April or May.

"We're working real hard to oppose that," Burton said about CAFTA. Burton and the board of Snake River Sugar Company, the farmer cooperative which owns Amalgamated Sugar, said the trade agreements are highly advantageous to others in the world but weaken a basic U.S. industry in the name of free trade.

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said Wednesday afternoon there is an effort already being organized by the National Farmers Union to lobby Congress to vote against CAFTA.

With the Nyssa plant closed, beets grown in Washington and northeast Oregon, which had been delivered to the local Nyssa plant, will also be shipped to Nampa, Burton said. He said the 16 percent reduction in beet acreage throughout the company will mean about 3,000 fewer acres will be planted in the Nyssa district.

Malheur County Commissioner Louis Wettstein said he was concerned about the production halt at the plant.

"I hate to see this," he said, but added he feels the plant will be back in the long haul.

County Commissioner Jim Nakano said the impact from the production halt will be severe.

"We're really going to be hurting," Nakano said.

In Salem, state Rep. Tom Butler, R-Ontario, took to the floor of the Oregon House Wednesday morning to make a plea for lawmakers to approve a lower minimum wage for Eastern Oregon. He said Oregon's higher minimum wage puts employers in the state at a disadvantage.

"They may be willing to come part way for me," Butler said. The loss of 190 full time, plus 510 seasonal jobs, is equal to about 50,000 jobs in Portland, he said. Seven-hundred may not seem like at lot, he said, but for a community of 3,000 the hit is extreme.

"It's a major blow to the community," he said.

Butler said he has notified the Oregon Department of Economic and Community Development and the Office of Rural Policy in the governor's office of the Nyssa situation.

Rick Minster, ODECD regional business development officer for Malheur, Harney and Grant counties, said department officials have been in contact with the company about the situation.

"We're going to continue talking with the company and see what we can do," Minster said.

According to a history of the company, "Story of The Amalgamated Sugar Company," test plots grown in 1935 sparked interest among farmers in the Nyssa area. Several hundred acres were planted in 1936. The Nyssa plant was completed and ready for operation Sept. 30, 1938.

Larry Meyer is a reporter for the Argus Observer. He can be contacted at (541) 889-5387, or by e-mail, LarryM@argusobserver.com.

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