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July 2017, Volume 23, Number 3

Rural: Meat and Migrants

A Spring 2017 Washington Post survey found that rural Americans are uneasy about the changing demographics of the US and believe their Christianity is under attack as the federal government caters to urban residents. For example, 42 percent of rural residents agree that immigrants are mostly a drain on the US, compared with 16 percent of urban residents. Two-thirds of rural residents say cracking down on illegal migrants would improve job prospects in their areas.

Rural was defined as non-metro counties and counties near population centers with up to 250,000 people, so that a quarter of Americans were considered rural in the poll. Pollsters say that the underlying issue is fairness, with rural residents skeptical of whom the federal government favors and helps.

Rural areas have had a weaker recovery from the 2008-09 recession than urban areas, and job growth has not returned to 2007 levels, prompting rural youth to leave for education and jobs and not return. A third of rural residents said that jobs and drug abuse were the biggest problems confronting their community, compared with 10 percent of urban residents.

The Wall Street Journal reported on May 26, 2017 that the total rural population declined in each of the past five years. Births in rural counties are declining, deaths are rising, and the median age of 41 is higher than the median 35 in large metro areas. Male labor force participation in rural counties is declining, and there are 60 disabled workers per 1,000 working age residents in rural counties, double the 30 per 1,000 rate in large metro areas.

Storm Lake. The New York Times profiled Storm Lake, Iowa on May 29, 2017, emphasizing that real wages declined by two-thirds in the past forty years in area meatpacking plants. Instead of US-born white workers employed under union contracts, most meatpacking workers in Storm Lake, a city of 11,000, are Hispanic or Asian immigrants.

Hygrade Food Products Corporation closed its Storm Lake plant after unionized workers refused to accept a $3 an hour wage cut in 1981. Iowa Beef Processors (later known as IBP) soon reopened the plant at lower wages and with no union, and recruited immigrants in Texas and California. Tyson Foods bought IBP in 2001, and in 2017 was paying the 2,200 mostly Hispanic workers in its Storm Lake pork plant at least $15 an hour; Asians are the second-largest group.

The area unemployment rate is less than three percent, and two more pork plants are planned. Some nearby cities have rejected meatpacking plants because of the changes they bring to area populations.

Case. Case Farms, which has two poultry processing plants in Ohio and two in North Carolina, was profiled in the May 8, 2017 New Yorker as a dangerous place for immigrants to work. Case had 74 OSHA violations per 1,000 employees between 2010 and 2016, followed by 17 per 1,000 workers at House of Raeford and three per 1,000 at Tyson Foods.

Most Case employees are Guatemalan immigrants. Chickens are caught at night by catching crews who are reportedly paid $2.25 per 1,000 birds, hauled to plants, loaded on hooks by their feet, and killed before being split in two and taken to a dis-assembly line that is kept at 45 Fahrenheit to reduce bacterial growth; workers cut breasts, legs, and other pieces from passing carcasses. Case Farms lines handle 35 to 45 chickens per minute.

Case was founded in 1986 when the ex-president of Perdue Farms bought a plant in Ohio that lost its Amish women employees as it expanded. The Morgantown, North Carolina plant recruited Guatemalans in 1989 in Immokalee, Florida, after which social networks provided ever-more workers. Productivity rose, but some of the workers complained of fast line speeds and inadequate equipment, including cheap gloves. Case bought better gloves, but made workers pay if they used too many, prompting a strike in 2006.

Several short-lived strikes were followed by Case checking worker documents carefully and terminating unauthorized workers. Some Case workers went on strike in July 2008, and the leaders of the strike were later terminated for a variety of reasons. Workers say that, after Case was notified that they were unauthorized, those who did not protest wages and working conditions were encouraged to return with new documents and new names.

Case disputes the workers' accounts, saying that it never knowingly hires or retains unauthorized workers. Case is experimenting with a dis-assembly machine that could displace 70 percent of its workers.

Case and other poultry processing farms often use subcontractors to clean equipment overnight. An unauthorized teen employed by a Case cleaning subcontractor lost a leg in a machine and returned to Guatemala. In Escamilla v. Shiel Sexton, the Indiana Supreme Court in May 2017 joined about half the states to conclude that unauthorized workers injured in the US can recover the cost of treatment plus diminished future US earnings unless their US employer can show they are likely to be deported.

In its 2002 Hoffman Plastics decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that an unauthorized worker who was wrongly fired for union activities could not recoup back wages from the employer who fired him, causing him to lose wages. However, in workers compensation cases, workers are asking for the wages they would have earned if they had not been injured at work. Employers must prove that injured workers would likely have been deported to argue they should not receive future wages.

Meat. European settlers were astonished by the abundance of land in North America, and soon came to expect meat every day instead of once a week as in Europe. Livestock were an early source of wealth and a banking system, since cattle reproduce.

Maureen Ogle's book, "In Meat we Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America," argues that Americans have long expected large quantities of meat to be available at low prices. As the US urbanized, the result was an industrial cattle-raising, slaughtering and transportation system that gave Americans what they wanted, cheap meat, as well as a corn-fed cattle and hog system that is very efficient at raising and dis-assembling animals.

After the buffalo were decimated after the Civil War, grasslands to raise cattle were available. Cattle barons rushed west, relying on railroads to transport live cattle to consumers in eastern cities. Armour, Hammond, and Swift soon realized that it was cheaper to slaughter cattle and hogs in Chicago and to ship fresh meat to consumers, and they invested in cold chains to ensure reliable deliveries of beef carcasses to grocers, where butchers prepared cuts for consumers.

Ogle argues that meatpackers made more money from byproducts than from fresh meat in the 19th century, so that the hides, tallow, and other non-edible parts of animals sustained meatpackers. She documents cases of consumers complaining when the price of meat rose, and emphasizes that meatpackers have long been caught between government regulations that raise their costs and consumers who expect cheap meat.

Kenneth Monfort revolutionized beef packing in Greeley, Colorado, sending boxed beef rather than carcasses to grocers in the 1950s; Monfort was sold to ConAgra for $300 million in 1987. Andrew Anderson founded IBP in 1960 (IBP became the official name in 1982) in Denison, Iowa, further refined boxed beef, and became the biggest beef packer in the world by 1975. IBP was sold for $3.2 billion in 2001 to Tyson Foods, which renamed it Tyson Fresh Meats.

Jesse Jewell (1902-75) made Gainesville in northeastern Georgia the "poultry capital of the world" by pioneering vertical integration to produce broiler chickens, providing chicks to farmers, selling them feed, and processing the grown birds. Jewell required farmers to build housing with automatic feeding and watering stations, and paid them based on their efficiency at turning feed into meat.

Jewell launched what became the largest integrated poultry processor in the world during WWII, when beef and pork were reserved for the troops and low-priced chicken became the substitute meat for Americans. Land-grant universities helped to speed integrated broiler production by finding animal protein factors such as vitamin B12 that improved the feed-to-meat conversion ratio. Suburbanization, grocery chains and the baby boom accelerated the demand for chicken in the 1950s; chicken was often sold as a loss leader.

USDA recommends that Americans with a 2,000 calorie a day diet eat four ounces of meat a day or about 85 pounds a year; Americans consume eat over three times more, 275 pounds a year. Ogle concludes that Americans want cheap meat, and that farmers and meatpackers have innovated to deliver what consumers want.

Ogle, Maureen. 2013. In Meat we Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America.