No Tyson

In September 2017, Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods Inc. announced plans to build a new, $320 million poultry complex in Tonganoxie, Kansas. Tonganoxie Mayor Jason Ward spoke of the investments in infrastructure the town had made to accommodate a company like Tyson Foods and said residents would benefit from working close to home. Former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback even attended the press conference to remark on the economic benefits the plant would bring to the state.

But not everyone in Tonganoxie welcomed the news of a poultry processing plant locating in their community. Concerned citizens and Tonganoxie residents formed a grassroots coalition to protest the plant. After weeks of “No Tyson In Tongie” protests the Tonganoxie City Council unanimously passed a resolution opposing Tyson Foods’ proposed poultry processing complex; and by November, the company found a home for a new poultry processing facility in Humboldt, Tennessee.

“As we’ve said in the past, plans for a chicken complex in Kansas remain on hold while we move forward with a project in Tennessee,” Tyson said in a statement. “We’ll look for opportunities to expand operations in the future, so we’re positioned to meet demand for our products, but we don’t have a timeline. We still have interest in Kansas and will continue to consider potential sites in the state and other states.”

Increasing opposition

Tyson Foods isn’t the only meat processor to face community opposition. Prestage Foods announced in 2016, plans to build a 650,000-sq.-ft. facility in Mason City, Iowa, with a capacity to slaughter 10,000 hogs per day at a price tag of more than $240 million.

But the proposed facility divided the community. Some residents approved the project for the prospect of good employment. Other residents opposed to the plant attended council meetings to express their concerns about environmental impacts related to wastewater and hog odors. In addition, property values and social services needed to accommodate new residents looking for work at the plant.

To pacify the resistant residents, the company agreed not to build or operate any hog confinements within 2.5 miles of the city limits of the City of Mason City, the City of Clear Lake or surrounding Clear Lake. Additionally, the company committed $1.4 million over 10 annual installments to Mason City Public Schools.

Ultimately, Prestage abandoned its plans for Mason City after a split vote of the city council scuttled the deal. The company eventually settled on Wright County, Iowa, as the location for the new plant, where it broke ground this past March.

Don Stull, cultural anthropologist and Professor Emeritus at the Univ. of Kansas, spent more than 30 years studying the impact of meat and poultry processing plants on communities, such as Garden City, Kansas, in the 1980s.

“What started as an interest in immigrants, developed into looking at the consequences of the meat and poultry industry for communities, and then that led to my interest and concern about the impact on primarily line workers and then ultimately on growers,” he says. Stull also co-authored “Slaughterhouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry in North America,” which was published in 2003 and was critical of the meat processing industry.

Historically, meat and poultry companies built processing plants in rural communities close to supplies of livestock. “Those communities were small; they tended to be predominantly Anglo-American,” Stull explains. “Like Garden City, they might have some resident Mexican-American populations, but they did not have an adequate workforce. They were there where the animals were, but they did not have enough workers.”

However, an adequate labor force didn’t mean a steady workforce. High turnover rates among employees meant that processors would have struggled to keep facilities adequately staffed even in a community with an adequate work force, Stull adds. So, processors began recruiting workers outside of those communities.

“Meatpacking has always relied on immigrants to some degree to staff its kill and processing floors,” Stull says. “But especially beginning in the 1980s and into the 1990s and into this century it increasingly relied on immigrant workers, mainly from Mexico and others from Latin America; and then refugees in the 80s from Southeast Asia. More recently, it’s been refugees from Somalia and Myanmar.”

But the election of President Donald Trump and the implementation of more restrictive policies governing immigration and refugees has impacted the industry’s pool of immigrant labor, Stull says. “The workforce that was attracted to the industry is now precarious,” he says.

“My understanding is, from the materials made public by Tyson, that one of the reasons they were attracted to Tonganoxie was that it was within commuter distance from the metro Kansas City area,” close to a labor pool that would be attracted to jobs in the $10 to $15 range, he says.