1 in 4 employees in this Utah county work for one company — and it’s cutting jobs

While the hog farms of Smithfield Foods have drawn criticism from activists, the county’s economy depends on them.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A hog farm north of Milford in 2021. Smithfield Foods, which has its own pigs and also contracts with other farmers, is planning to reduce production in the area.

Getting the call about Smithfield Foods, said Milford Mayor Nolan Davis, was “devastating.”

Jobs at Smithfield — the largest employer in Beaver County — have brought families to west-central Utah. They have boosted enrollment in the county’s schools, and supported the creation of jobs at the school district and elsewhere. In some two-income homes, Davis points out, both workers are employed by Smithfield.

And now job cuts are on the horizon, as the company plans to reduce its hog production in Milford by two-thirds, Davis said. Beaver City Mayor Matt Robinson is worried, too.

“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 fellow employees, their families, contractors, contract growers, their families, all of the affected businesses, our partners at the school district. … I think I understand the feeling of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen.”

Smithfield is blaming the cost of doing business in California, where it will close the plant that processes hogs from Utah. So that is where county and state leaders are starting their battle to keep Smithfield producing here — by suggesting that Utah find a way to build a large hog 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 as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which aims to improve U.S. infrastructure and workforces, 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 highlights the importance of having “local food production and processing as much as possible,” Buttars said.

Smithfield Foods said it will move some operations to plants in the Midwest. But, Buttars said, “it doesn’t really make very much sense for us to raise hogs here and ship them back to the Midwest to Nebraska for processing.”

Utah’s existing meat-packing plants are too small to replace the Vernon, Calif., facility that Smithfield Foods said it plans to close next year. In theory, the reduced transport costs could entice Smithfield to keep production here, said Bailee Woolstenhulme, a spokesperson for the state 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 Tuesday to discuss the proposal.

In Beaver County, every job counts, so “our first priority is how do we make sure that we can stabilize Smithfield farms in Beaver County and ensure that, hopefully, people can remain gainfully employed there,” said Ben Hart, deputy director of Go Utah, after the meeting.

If Go Utah isn’t “laying out a good reason why they should stabilize in the state of Utah, then, we’re really not doing our jobs,” he said. By offering state incentives to Smithfield Foods or using other strategies, Hart said, he is optimistic that all of the company’s jobs in Utah can be preserved.

But he also plans to push for the creation of new jobs in the county, he said, and points to the state’s recent incentive award to Blue Core Labs as an example.

The business plans to tap a “pristine, naturally alkaline aquifer” in Beaver County as it produces and packages waters and juices for its own wellness brands, its website says, and 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 it to earn tax rebates over that time period.

What Hart doesn’t want, he said, is people in rural Utah suddenly feeling that they have to move away to earn a living. In Utah and the rest of the country, he said, “we’ve had enough of that.”

An economic emergency

On Friday, the Beaver County Commission declared an “economic state of emergency,” calling on “all municipal, state and national governments and organizations to assist the county in providing resources” to keep the Smithfield farms open.

“We’re just trying to head this off and get ahead of it,” said Commission Chairman Mark Whitney, later adding, “We’re going to do everything we can to protect our citizens.”

Hog harvesting and processing operations at the California facility employ about 1,800 people, Smithfield Foods said in a news release, and it 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 also are higher in California, he said.

“This was something that was beyond our control,” Whitney said Friday. “They’re wackos out there, and we have no say-so over what goes on in California,” referring to the higher costs.

A new California law could eventually further increase costs for any pork producer who does business there. It requires that pork sold in California be born to a sow that has at least 24 square feet of space — enough for the pig to turn around — for the sake of hygiene and animal welfare. National farming groups have challenged the law, which is not yet being enforced, and the case is scheduled for arguments this fall before the U.S. 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 found a total population of about 6,600.

During the Friday commission meeting, speakers estimated about 250 Utah workers would lose their jobs. Monroe told The Tribune Monday that the company plans to reduce production — but not close down its Utah operations — and said it has not set a number for the impending layoffs.

“It’s premature to specify a number, as we are working through details,” Monroe said. And there won’t be any immediate announcement about 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 students lost from a district that currently has an enrollment of about 1,500 — so maybe as much as a quarter. “That’s huge,” he said.

The loss of students would mean the loss of teachers and other staff members, 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 the Beaver district loses 200 to 400 students, “we’re looking at a loss of between six to 11 teachers districtwide,” Long said.

The district currently has a student-to-teacher ratio of about 23 to 1, he said, “and as we lose teachers, we’ll try to stay as close to that as we can.” He doesn’t anticipate any immediate layoffs. “We’ll need the better part of next year to see how this shakes out,” Long said.

“And where we would lose them would be critical, too,” he said. “Obviously, we would expect to be impacted more over in the Milford community,” where the Smithfield hog farm is located, about 22 miles northwest of Beaver, the county seat.

‘Everyone involved is committed’

Smithfield has not indicated any interest in building a meat-packing plant in Beaver County, speakers said at the County Commission meeting on Friday, and since the region’s workforce is not large enough to staff one there, it would have to be built elsewhere in central Utah.

The feasibility of such a project depends on many practical factors, like finding a location, getting permits and securing access to roads, water and sewage service, Buttars said. The budget would likely run in the tens of millions, he said.

“Everyone involved is committed to moving this forward as quickly as possible,” though a year or two would be an accelerated time frame, given the size of the project, he said.

Go Utah will attend Tuesday’s planning meeting, it said in a statement, “to find ways the state can support and continue to provide economic opportunities to the affected workers.”

The impending layoffs in Beaver County are evidence that “just about everything is viewed as disposable to Smithfield, including their own employees,” said Jeremy Beckham, board member of Utah Animal Rights Coalition, a grassroots animal rights organization based in Salt Lake City.

“Whether it’s the environment, the animals or their own employees, they’re all willing and ready to sacrifice them for profit, Beckham said. The state should find a way for people living in rural Utah to make a living without depending on agribusiness giants like Smithfield, he added, that are “not even based in this country.”

Smithfield Foods, which is based in Virginia, operates more than 500 farms and plants across the U.S. and in Mexico, Romania and Poland. Smithfield is a subsidiary of the WH Group, a Chinese company headquartered in Hong Kong.

Activists have been critical of Smithfield Food’s operations in Beaver County; two California men are still awaiting trial on charges they allegedly stole pigs from its Circle Four Farms in 2017. “Baby pigs are enduring mutilation, starvation and abuse at Smithfield,” Wayne Hsiung, one of the defendants and a co-founder of the group Direct Action Everywhere, alleged to The Tribune after the charges were filed.

Smithfield Foods has defended its farms. After the alleged theft in 2017, a company spokeswoman told The New York Times, Smithfield invited an inspection by Utah’s state veterinarian and a livestock handling expert, who found no “animal mistreatment.”

Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member and writes about business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune.