1 in 4 employees in this Utah county work for a company – and it’s cutting jobs
Receiving the call about Smithfield Foods, Milford Mayor Nolan Davis said, was “devastating”.
Jobs at Smithfield — Beaver County’s largest employer — have brought families to west-central Utah. They boosted enrollment in county schools and supported job creation in the school district and elsewhere. In some two-income homes, Davis points out, both workers are employed by Smithfield.
And now job cuts loom on the horizon as the company plans to cut pig production in Milford by two-thirds, Davis said. Beaver City Mayor Matt Robinson is also concerned.
“My family was able to return to Beaver County 15 years ago because I was able to be employed at Smithfield Foods,” Robinson said, “and so I deeply empathize with those co-workers, their families, the contractors, the contract producers, their families, all the businesses involved, our school district partners…. I think I understand the feeling of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen.
Smithfield blames the cost of doing business in California, where it will close the plant that processes Utah hogs. So that’s where county and state leaders begin their battle to keep Smithfield producing here – by suggesting that Utah find a way to build a large pork processing plant somewhere in the state.
The idea is in the preliminary stages, said Craig W. Buttars, commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. But there is potential state and federal funding available for such a project under President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which aims to improve America’s infrastructure and workforce, Buttars said.
After shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of Biden’s goals is to strengthen supply chains. And the situation with Smithfield Foods underscores the importance of having “as much local food production and processing as possible,” Buttars said.
Smithfield Foods said it would move some operations to plants in the Midwest. But, Buttars said, “it doesn’t really make sense for us to raise hogs here and send them back to the Midwest to Nebraska for processing.”
Existing Utah meatpacking plants too small to replace plant in Vernon, Calif., Smithfield Foods says plans to close next year. In theory, lower transportation costs could encourage Smithfield to keep production here, said Bailee Woolstenhulme, spokeswoman for the state’s agriculture department.
Representatives from Smithfield Foods met with the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity (Go Utah) and other local and state leaders at the Utah Capitol on Tuesday to discuss the proposal.
In Beaver County, every job matters, so “our first priority is how do we make sure we can stabilize Smithfield farms in Beaver County and hopefully get people to keep a job there. gainful employment,” said Ben Hart, deputy director of Go Utah, after the meeting.
If Go Utah doesn’t “provide a good reason why they should stabilize in Utah State, then we’re really not doing our job,” he said. By offering state incentives to Smithfield Foods or using other strategies, Hart said, he’s optimistic that all of the company’s jobs in Utah can be preserved.
But he also plans to push for new jobs in the county, he said, and points out the recent state incentive award to Blue Core Labs for example.
The company plans to tap into a “pristine, naturally alkaline aquifer” in Beaver County as it produces and packages waters and juices for its own wellness brands, his website saysand it will manufacture products for other companies.
Go Utah expects Blue Core Labs to provide 140 new jobs in Beaver County over five years, which would allow him to earn tax refunds over that period.
What Hart doesn’t want, he says, is people in rural Utah suddenly feeling like they have to move out to make a living. In Utah and the rest of the country, he said, “we’ve had enough of this.”
An economic emergency
On Friday, the Beaver County Commission declared a “state of economic emergency,” calling on “all municipal, state and national governments and organizations to assist the county in providing resources” to keep Smithfield farms open.
“We’re just trying to avoid that and get ahead,” Commission President Mark Whitney said, later adding: “We’re going to do everything we can to protect our citizens.”
Harvesting and hog processing operations at the California plant employ about 1,800 people, Smithfield Foods said in a press release, and will close in February. Utility costs alone are 3.5 times higher at the Vernon plant, about 4 miles south of Los Angeles, than in other states where Smithfield operates, vice president of corporate affairs Jim Monroe told ABC News. Taxes are also higher in California, he said.
“It was something that was out of our control,” Whitney said Friday. “It’s crazy over there, and we don’t have a say in what happens in California,” referring to the higher costs.
A new California law could potentially further increase costs for any pork producer doing business there. It requires pork sold in California to be born to a sow that has at least 24 square feet of space — enough for the pig to turn around — for hygiene and animal welfare reasons. National agricultural groups challenged the law which is not yet enforced, and the case is scheduled for arguments this fall before the United States Supreme Court.
Smithfield Foods has about 450 employees in Beaver County, the company confirmed. Businesses in the county reported a total employment of 1,792 in the 2020 census, which revealed a total population of around 6,600.
During Friday’s commission meeting, speakers estimated that about 250 Utah workers would lose their jobs. Monroe told The Tribune on Monday that the company plans to cut production — but not shut down operations in Utah — and said it hasn’t set a number for the impending layoffs.
“It’s premature to specify a number, as we’re working out the details,” Monroe said. And there will be no immediate announcement on the number of layoffs, he added. “This is a transition that will take place over six months,” Monroe said.
The Beaver County School District is already trying to estimate how the layoffs will affect its enrollment. “Oh, I’ve been doing math all weekend,” Superintendent David Long said Monday.
Long’s rough estimate, based on 250 lost jobs, is 200 to 400 lost students in a district that currently has about 1,500 enrollments, or possibly as much as a quarter. “It’s huge,” he said.
The loss of students would mean the loss of teachers and other staff, as well as, potentially, programs. The district currently has about 300 employees, making it one of a small group of employers that are among the second largest in the county, according to state estimates.
About 80 of its employees are teachers. If Beaver District loses 200 to 400 students, “we’re looking at a loss of six to 11 teachers district-wide,” Long said.
The district currently has a student-teacher ratio of about 23 to 1, he said, “and as we lose teachers, we will try to stay as close to that as possible.” It does not provide for immediate layoffs. “We’ll need most of next year to see how it plays out,” Long said.
“And where we would lose them would also be critical,” he said. “Obviously we would expect to be more affected in the community of Milford,” where the Smithfield pig farm is located, about 22 miles northwest of Beaver, the county seat.
“All the actors are engaged”
Smithfield has shown no interest in building a meatpacking plant in Beaver County, speakers said at Friday’s county commission meeting, and as the region’s workforce is not large enough to provide one, it should be built elsewhere in central Utah.
The feasibility of such a project depends on many practical factors, such as finding a location, obtaining permits and securing access to roads, water and sewers, Buttars said. The budget would likely be in the tens of millions, he said.
“Everyone involved is committed to getting things done as quickly as possible,” although a year or two would be an expedited time frame, given the size of the project, he said.
Go Utah will participate in Tuesday’s planning meeting, it said in a statement, “to find ways in which the state can support and continue to provide economic opportunity to affected workers.”
The impending layoffs in Beaver County are proof that “almost everything is considered disposable for Smithfield, including their own employees,” said Jeremy Beckham, board member of the Utah Animal Rights Coalition, an organization animal rights activist based in Salt Lake City.
“Whether it’s the environment, the animals, or their own employees, they’re all willing and ready to sacrifice for profit,” Beckham said. The state should find a way for people living in rural Utah to earn a living without depending on agribusiness giants like Smithfield, he added, who “are not even based in this country. “.
Smithfield Foods, which is based in Virginia, operates more than 500 farms and factories across the United States and in Mexico, Romania and Poland. Smithfield is a subsidiary of WH Group, a Chinese company headquartered in Hong Kong.
Activists criticized Smithfield Food’s operations in Beaver County; two Californian men are still awaiting trial for allegedly stealing pigs from his Circle Four Farms in 2017. Direct Action Everywhere alleged to The Tribune after the charges were filed.
Smithfield Foods defended its farms. After the alleged theft in 2017, a company spokeswoman told the New York TimesSmithfield invited an inspection by the Utah State Veterinarian and a livestock handling expert, who found no “animal abuse”.
Leto Sapunar is a Report for America member of the body and writes on corporate responsibility and sustainability for the Salt Lake Tribune.