Big Ag and strong communities of small town America – Truth or Fiction?
By GTKYF Foundation Inc volunteer staff writer.
For a lot of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania residents, it’s already out of sight, out of mind – but just a few weeks ago, crews were taking a wrecking ball to the iconic old Wilbur Chocolate factory in downtown Lititz, a booming little burg that some have touted as “little Brooklyn.” The closed factory is soon to be made into loft apartments.
Lititz is really going strong – but it’s going to continue without a flagship business that helped make it what it was over a century ago.
Why? Well, Cargill bought Wilbur in 1992, and it didn’t take them more than a couple of decades to decide that they needed to uproot the production of Wilbur chocolates by its roots and scatter it halfway across the country, to places like Milwaukee, where we’re still not hearing much about Wilbur Chocolate.
Let’s start with the history: the company started just after the civil war, and chocolate making came to Lititz in 1913.
Almost a century later, Wilbur’s was still helping to fill tour buses so people could come out from New York or New Jersey or other places and take in the tourist value of the town. Wilbur’s WAS Lititz.
But then, back in 2015, news of a sudden closure hit the papers: Wilbur’s was going to shut down. Cargill said production would move to plants in Mount Joy and on West Lincoln Street in Lititz, as well as other facilities around the country.
The reason cited by this mammoth food conglomerate was that it would be too hard to make the original Wilbur plant “modern” – as if no one has ever rehabbed an old warehouse to be part of a modern town or city!
The real reason Wilbur’s factory got the axe is that too many huge corporations like Cargill simply have no loyalty, and in some cases, not even much business sense.
In some remote boardroom where everything is counted in a spreadsheet, there’s the vague idea that if you can sell candy made in Lititz, in Lititz, you can still sell that candy if it’s made in Milwaukee. Cargill doesn’t care if Wilbur’s was a small-town icon – and it doesn’t care that people will think of the brand differently from now on. It only cares if it makes sales. Now. In the AI age, we’re really only one step away from having computers make all of these big corporate decisions.
Cargill’s own site which now houses a “history of Wilbur’s” makes everything look nice with its explanation of the move that closed a town’s major local industry:
“Today, Wilbur® Chocolate is recognized as one of four brands produced and sold by Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate. Fellow chocolate brands include Peter’s Chocolate, Veliche Belgian Chocolate, and Gerkens Cocoa Powder. Each of these brands has product lines that are regarded for their fine quality by the confectioners, dairies, and bakeries that Cargill supplies chocolate ingredients throughout North and South America.”
The Reading Eagle told a much different story in its coverage of the closure in 2015 – of 130 jobs lost, and of people and equipment being moved up to over a thousand miles away, in a somewhat slapdash manner. The paper notes the change was “quicker than expected” and quotes locals lamenting the loss of a big part of the Lititz landscape.
The Eagle’s coverage also points to a big question mark for anyone wondering about Cargill’s commitment to local production, as Karen Shuey reports:
“The majority of the work will be transferred to facilities in Hazleton, Luzerne County, Milwaukee and Ontario. (italics added) Others will be sent to plants on West Lincoln Avenue in Lititz and in Mount Joy in Lancaster County, about 12 miles southwest of Lititz.”
So “part” of the production is still in town – but how much of a “part?” Are the Lititz and Mount Joy plants partners in the big plan – or is this just a fig leaf? How many workers got to stay?
While Venture Lititz, the pre-eminent private sector town commerce group, confirmed to Farm Fresh Media July 2 that some production does happen at the Lincoln Street facility, the staff had no ballpark numbers – which is a little strange, given Wilbur’s history. Meanwhile, calls to staff at the Mount Joy facility were not returned. Are these local plants really cranking out a lot of Wilbur Buds or are they essentially window dressing?
Here’s another tell-tale sign that Cargill’s big move might have been less smart than expected: a Google search of “Wilbur’s chocolate in Milwaukee” directs to pages of results talking about – the closure of the Lititz plant!
In other words, while Wilbur’s in Lititz garnered a lot of press right up until the last days, because the locals loved a local product, and even those visiting from far away associated it with Lititz, a major production line in the northern Midwest doesn’t even register as a footnote! Could it be that after this happenstance transplant, people just don’t care as much?
Check out the way that Cargill described its own operations in its “History of Wilburs” page:
“Cargill is a company focused on providing food, agricultural, financial, and industrial products to the world. Together with farmers, customers, governments, and communities, the company helps people thrive by applying experience and insight that span 150 years … Cargill’s commitment is to feed the world in a responsible way, reducing environmental impact and improving communities where their employees live and work.”
Really? Together with farmers … and communities?
In reality, Cargill seems to favor a kind of arbitrary decentralization-for-its-own-sake, bringing to mind the “forced migrations” of the colonial era. “We’re putting this over here, now.”
Take it as a cautionary tale of what can happen to any farm or any small business based on the whims of the big ag overlords, and look for Wilbur’s wherever it’s made to get the inside scoop on the sad tale of another uprooted American factory. The government doesn’t seem to care much about the corporatization of American food production – but many Americans do! If you’re a farmer under pressure, get connected to Farm Fresh Media and our parent organization GTKYF Foundation Inc and our movement of inspired, resourceful people looking to take back the land and get serious about natural, healthy farming practices – and supporting local family farmers!