TURLOCK — A large crowd turned out Tuesday for the grand opening of the Blue Diamond Growers processing plant, a welcome boost to the job market.
The plant has about 50 employees now, could reach 100 by year's end and might have as many as 300 when it's at full operation within a decade, said Mark Jansen, president and chief executive officer, in an interview before the event.
The Washington Road plant slices, dices, grinds and blanches almonds after they get initial processing at Blue Diamond's plants in Salida and Sacramento.
"This is the kind of thing we want to do more of," said Karen Ross, secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Jerry Brown. "We want to celebrate these kinds of openings."
About 300 people turned out for the event, including growers, public officials and business leaders.
Blue Diamond is the largest player in the state's thriving almond industry, which accounts for about 75 percent of the world supply.
Blue Diamond has not disclosed the cost of the plant, but they did say it is the largest investment since the grower-owned cooperative was founded in Sacramento in 1910. It employs about 900 people there and about 400 at the Salida plant, which opened in 1969.
Turlock boosters had talked of the number of plant jobs possibly reaching into the high hundreds. That won't be the case, mainly because much of the cutting, packaging and other work will be done with high-tech machinery.
The products will go mainly to companies that put almonds into breakfast cereal, baked goods, candy, yogurt and other foods, Jansen said. Sales in this part of Blue Diamond's business rose 69 percent from 2009 to 2011, he said.
The plant has been running since May with nuts harvested last year. Tuesday's guests got a tour but did not see any production.
The 2013 crop, projected at a near-record 2.007 billion pounds for all California processors, will start to come off the trees in August.
"Our expanded manufacturing capacity could not have come at a better time or a more critical time," Jansen said.
He also noted the measures taken to ensure food safety, which buyers around the world are coming to expect.
The first phase of construction will cover about 200,000 square feet. The other two phases will bring the plant to about 500,000 square feet, with space for manufacturing more Blue Diamond products such as flavored snack nuts and perhaps Almond Breeze milk substitute.
Blue Diamond's sales hit $1 billion for the first time last year. It is among the processors that have benefited from research suggesting that eating almonds is good for people. Demand for the nut among emerging middle classes in China, India and elsewhere has helped, too.
The plant is in an area west of Highway 99 that Turlock officials long have been planning for industrial expansion.
"I see great things," Mayor John Lazar said. "I see more economic development, more jobs, more opportunity for the future of our young people."
Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa agreed: "What a great day it is here for Turlock, for Blue Diamond Growers and all the residents of Stanislaus County."
Modesto Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.