Midwest towns saying ‘no thanks’ to meatpacking jobs

Residents of Nickerson, Neb., turn in their seats towards Randy Ruppert, left, during a meeting April 19. Costco wanted to open a $300 million chicken processing plant employing 1,100 workers but moved on after the village board unanimously voted against the plant. Nati Harnik | AP

Maybe if workers at a hog processing plant were white, Mason City, Iowa would have embraced a plan that would have brought close to 2,000 jobs to the city, an official with the company proposing the plant is suggesting.

“Being a Southerner, I’m used to the fact that people think that racism resides in the South,” Ron Prestage of Prestage Farms in North Carolina, says. “It was very apparent among some that racism is alive and well in Mason City and northern Iowa as well.”

The Mason City City Council rejected Prestage’s proposal to locate a processing plant in the city last week after residents protested the proposal.

“Racism was a huge factor,” Council member Janet Solberg, who voted for the plant, told the Des Moines Register. There is no doubt in my mind,” she said. “Most of my phone calls and emails were, ‘we don’t want those people in our community.’ It played a very large factor in all of this, sad to say. I’m so disappointed in our citizens.”

Prestage ran into the same problem that other meat processors are encountering: residents who fear a loss of a “way of life.”

In tiny Nickerson, Neb., residents last month forced Costco to abandon plans for a chicken processing plant and the 1,100 jobs it would bring to town.

Residents said they feared the impact on schools, housing, and roads, but race and religion also came up at an early-April public hearing on the project, the Associated Press reported.

More overtly, John Wiegert, from nearby Fremont where two meat processors employ many immigrants, questioned whether Nickerson’s plant would attract legal immigrants from Somalia — more than 1,000 of whom have moved to other Nebraska cities for similar jobs, along with people from Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia.

“Being a Christian, I don’t want Somalis in here,” Wiegert, who has led efforts to deny rental housing to immigrants in the country illegally, told the crowd. “They’re of Muslim descent. I’m worried about the type of people this is going to attract.”

Others pointed out that, given Nebraska’s unemployment rate is among the nation’s lowest near 3 percent, few local residents would accept the entry-level jobs. While the projected wage of $13 to $17 an hour was above the region’s current median wage for production workers, opponents argued meat processors generally have high turnover.

The hearings in Mason City were also contentious, although they focused more on the city’s financial ability to handle an influx of residents and general complaints against “factory farming,” according to the Des Moines Register.

Prestage made his allegations of racism during an interview with Brownfield Ag News, where a commenter denied his assertion that northern Iowa is racist.

The load on the schools with kids that don’t even or barely speak English. The groups that have no intentions of assimilation but rather in some cases domination of an area. A operation like Prestige (sic) purposed(sic) would promise to not bring best and brightest but those that are willing to do such work for the less then worthy pay a job like that should be worth.

Ron Prestige (sic) knew what he was doing trying to shove things through so fast. It’s the same way a used car salesman tries to get you to sign on the dotted line before you have a chance to see the lemon you are about to buy! Sure the paint jobs shines but if it runs like crap the whole think is a nightmare! Mr Prestige (sic) we are not racist … too conservative at times yes oh God yes….but we are not stupid either and YOU sir tried to pull a fast on us!

“We stopped Ron Prestage’s packing plant because thousands of everyday Iowans are fed up with corporate ag and factory farms,” the head of an opposition group wrote in a letter to the Des Moines Register published today.

“We’re fed up with more manure and more water pollution. We don’t want big-money corporations and their elected officials controlling our communities and state government — so they can make as much money as possible with no regard for family farmers, workers, consumers and our environment.”

Prestage Farms is now looking at Webster City, Iowa, which lost hundreds of jobs when Electrolux closed a factory there five years ago.

“It would be worth it in the end just for them to have more jobs and have more people willing to move here instead of willing to move out of here for no job,” one resident said.