Prestage came to rural Wright County, Iowa with the promise of creating 922 jobs, according to their agreement with the county requiring them to employ at least that many people within the rural community.
“We were right to come here,” said Jere Null, CEO of Prestage Foods of Iowa. “We felt like from this location we could draw from all three towns (Eagle Grove, Webster City and Fort Dodge), and we needed to. And that’s exactly what happened.” About 50% of the workers are from Fort Dodge or Webster County, Null reported. A large percentage of workers also come from Eagle Grove and Webster City.
A walk through the slaughter area of the plant shows a diverse workforce; Null reported that 41% of their current employees are women.
One of them is Deborah Holtorf, who was a hairdresser at JCPenney in Fort Dodge for many years. Holtorf now works with a knife in her hands instead of a pair of clippers. The transition, she said, has gone well for her. “I’ve learned a lot about food safety,” Holtorf said. “I’ve enjoyed it.”
“Our controller, our head of logistics, head of HR, and head of food safety are all women,” Null said.
About 23% of the workers are Spanish-speaking. An economic study by Goss & Associates Economic Solutions, of Omaha, which accounted for 922 workers, predicted in 2017 that 43% of employees would be foreign-born Latinos who spoke exclusively Spanish.
The most common jobs at the plant are employees who work on the 100,000 square-foot cutting floor, where the pigs are harvested and cuts sorted. Many of these jobs are made easier by various mechanisms like the five miles of conveyor belts that move the pig through the plant or the plant’s ten robots that help to make certain cuts
“That’s going to be the most anywhere in a plant like this in the world,” Null said. “We are highly robotized.”
Each of the robots has a camera that can sense exactly where the pig is and some are equipped with saws that can make a perfect slice, then sanitize its saw blades before the next pig enters the chamber.
“Meatpacking used to be one of the most dangerous industries in the United States,” Null said. “Today a lot of the mechanical saws are protected behind shields. It used to be people who ran those by hand. The industry has made a lot of advancements in safety.”
According to Null, if the plant was built in the 1980s or 1990s, it would have likely needed 250 more people, but technology has automated certain jobs that he described as “very laborious.”
“We have definitely made it more efficient,” Null said.
Technology has also significantly diminished odors that come from the site. “The people who had been around meat plants before really believed that our plant would stink and smell,” said Null. “We invested highly in environmental technology. This plant doesn’t smell. I can say that so confidently because that’s what the people and our neighbors tell us.”
A Global Market
Prestage exports about 30% of its product to countries like China, Mexico, Japan, and South Korea, so the United States-Canada-Mexico trade agreement is something Null applauds. According to that agreement, tariffs on agricultural products traded between the United States and Mexico will remain at zero.
“USMCA was big for us,” Null said. “It’s increasing our ability to be competitive in Mexico. However, there are still tariffs on U.S. pork products going to China and we would like to see them reduced.”
Null said while some recent shipments to China have been delayed, that has more to do with coronavirus concerns than any trade issues. “We have had shipments delayed because in China the ports have been behind, and we suspect that’s backup from this virus,” Null said. “That’s not a trade issue. We have seen some delays in shipments, but we are still producing the product.”
Null said with an “even playing field, the U.S. can compete anywhere.
“The American farmer is the best, most efficient farmer in the world,” Null said. “We are good at raising pigs, corn, and soybeans. And if we are given a level-playing field, we can compete anywhere in the world. We want to see these trade barriers come down so we can be competitive around the world.”
Of all Prestage products, 45% are sold to other processors like Hormel or Oscar Meyer, who turn them into processed meats like salami and pepperoni. About 55% of the product, including things like spare ribs, tenderloins, and pork chops, is sold to supermarkets like Fareway and Hy-Vee.
Here to Stay
One fear among the public has been that Prestage will cease operations in a few years and leave the area in worse shape than before, but Null said that’s highly unlikely.
“We have been in operations for 37 years,” Null said. “We are not a fly-by-night company.”
Bill and Marsha Prestage founded the company in North Carolina in 1983. The company now operates in seven states with live pig and turkey operations.
“If for some reason, something isn’t doing well, we have other irons in the fire.” And he said because the pigs are already in Iowa along with corn, the business is something that won’t likely fall out of favor.
“This is an efficient deal and not the type of business that’s easily duplicated,” explained Null. “The world has to eat.”
Null is confident that the Prestage plant will be the most efficient and modern slaughter plant in the world for several years to come.
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