Less than two years ago, a quarter of the workforce in central Utah’s Beaver County worked for the same company: the pork producer Smithfield Foods.
News in December that the Virginia-based global company was ending contracts with 26 Utah hog farms, and cutting more than 70 jobs that support those contracts, devastated some county employees. But it did not surprise them.
It’s the second large scale-back of Smithfield’s operations in as many years, and the first had caused the county to, in the words of one county commissioner, “hit the panic button.” This time, though, the county was better prepared to handle such a crisis.
“Our response was quite different this time around,” said Jen Wakeland, Beaver County’s strategic development director. “We immediately were on calls with offices at the state level. ... Together, we addressed the work that could immediately take place.”
Smithfield announced the Utah reductions in early December, citing an “industry oversupply of pork, weaker consumer demand and high feed prices.” In addition to ending its contracts with 26 of its 28 Utah-owned pork farms, the company would also have to eliminate the jobs associated with those farms, a news release said. According to a WARN notice filed with the state in January, the company will eliminate 75 jobs — just over a third of the 210 remaining Utah jobs.
“Our industry and company are experiencing historically challenging hog production market conditions,” Shane Smith, Smithfield’s president and CEO, said in the December news releases. “Smithfield continues to take steps to improve operational efficiency and optimize our hog supply chain. These actions have included rebalancing production with East Coast harvest capacity, reducing our sow herd in Missouri and closing finishing operations in Utah. These are difficult decisions, but they are necessary to help our company remain competitive in this operating environment.”
The company said it will offer “relocation opportunities” and “transition assistance” to affected employees, but those employees do not include the 26 farmers whose contracts are being cut. Under their contracts, Smithfield owns the pigs and supplies the feed, vet care and other necessary accommodations, a company spokesperson said. But the farmers have their own employees, and they will also be out of a job soon.
“It’s just a crappy deal,” said Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson said. “They pulled the rug out from under us.”
The recent cuts at Smithfield are a blow, Pearson said, both to the employees and the contracted farmers who just lost their biggest source of income. The farmers have little choice but to sell the barns back to the company — Smithfield offered buy-outs but did not disclose the details — and “find something else, somewhere else.”
“These guys are just done,” Pearson said. “It’s devastating to us. Most of [the contractors] were hometown kids that stayed here and invested in the community. Now, they’re left with nothing.”
The cuts will also hit subcontractors and contract farm employees who “aren’t even part of the number” of affected employees. That’s a harder number to track, but Pearson said she estimates several hundred people have been directly impacted by both rounds of Smithfield’s layoffs, even if they were not direct Smithfield employees.
Most of the roughly $200 million worth of hog product sold in 2021 came from Beaver or Iron County, according to a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. Smithfield’s cuts will “significantly impact those numbers,” the spokesperson said.
Those 26 farmers, plus their employees, are going to have to start over, Pearson said. The loss is more than financial. The county is about to see an entire way of life essentially disappear.
“In my mind, [pig farmers] were their own entrepreneurs; they owned their own business,” Pearson said. “Now they’re going to have to find something new, or be an employee for somebody else. It’s definitely disheartening.”
County officials, as they did in the summer of 2022, sprang to action after Smithfield’s announcement. But unlike that first round of layoffs, they had more resources at their disposal.
The initial layoffs were a warning signal and a lesson about the dangers of a single-industry economy. The county quickly began looking for ways to diversify its economy, and in the year that passed, it achieved some milestones: The Utah Inland Port Authority approved a new project in the county that would bring new, and more diverse, jobs; Fervo Energy solidified plans to drill 29 new geothermal wells; the county leaned harder on tourism as a revenue stream.
“We’ve been trying to do that for years. The urgency just ramped up,” Pearson said.
This time, the groundwork was in place for Wakeland and other county officials to fill the gaps left in Smithfield’s wake.
Wakeland’s team built an Economic Shock Dashboard that directed people to resources — everything from food and clothing to childcare assistance and unemployment options. The site includes active job listings in the county, which Wakeland said are updated every few days, as well as links to job fairs, trainings and the state’s workforce services. The county ran a QR code for the dashboard on the front page of the Beaver County Journal every day, and posted flyers at post offices, grocery stores and libraries, Wakeland said. The Center for Immigration and New American Integration, a branch of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, provided translation services.
Wakeland said she is “pretty dang proud” of her assistant, Stephanie Laws, for keeping the dashboard up-to-date, and her team at-large for its quick response.
There’s more in the works, Wakeland said. In January, Unitech Manufacturing, a major HVAC supplier, announced an expansion to bring 50 jobs and a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility to Beaver County. It’s the first official operation in the Beaver City zone of the county’s inland port project area.
“It feels good to go in and help a community,” Chris Oberle, president and CEO of Midgley-Huber, Unitech’s Salt Lake City-based parent company, said in a news release. “But this is a good thing for us, too. It’s a win-win and a perfect fit that we’re excited about. It opens short and long-term options for us, and we truly believe in the growth of this community.”
Pearson said the state has been “bend-over-backwards” helpful in its efforts to bring more business to rural Utah. She’s hopeful about the new opportunities on the horizon, she said — but change takes time, and she expects some growing pains.
“We’re trying to figure out what the future holds for Beaver County,” Pearson said.
Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.