One year later
By CHAD THOMPSON
EAGLE GROVE – Almost one year after opening its sprawling $350 million pork plant south of Eagle Grove, Prestage Foods of Iowa is still climbing toward its goal of employing 950 workers.
About 800 people currently work at the 700,000-square-foot slaughter facility, which began operations March 4, 2019, according to Jere Null, Prestage’s chief operating officer.
Prestage came to Wright County with the promise of creating 922 jobs. Its development agreement with the county requires them to employ at least that many.
“There’s operations we aren’t doing yet,” Null said. “We are slowly building up. We always planned a one-year ramp-up.”
Null said 8,500 pigs a day are moved through the plant.
“To get to 100% of our capacity, we need to get to 10,000 head,” Null said.
Before settling in Wright County, Prestage at one time considered sites in both Mason City and Fort Dodge for its state-of-the-art plant.
“We were right to come here,” Null said. “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 that many women have found work at Prestage.
Null reported that 41% of current employees are women.
One of them is Deborah Holtorf, who was a hairdresser at JCPenney in Fort Dodge for many years.
After JCPenney and the salon closed at Crossroads Mall in 2017, Holtorf found herself in need of another opportunity.
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.”
Rebecca Cantrell, of Eagle Grove, is a former nurse’s aid. She now disassembles pig parts.
“People may end up being here that didn’t envison they would,” said Null, whose father was in the meat-packing business. “Others don’t like the blood.”
In addition to some of the most demanding positions at the plant, Null said women hold key positions.
“Our controller, our head of logistics, head of HR and head of food safety are all women,” Null said.
About 23% of workers are Spanish-speaking. According to Census data, Wright County has a Hispanic or Latino population of almost 13%.
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.
At least to this point, that prediction appears to be high.
The most common jobs at the plant are employees who work on the cutting floor, which encompasses 100,000 square feet on its own.
That’s where different parts of the pig are broken down and sorted.
Many of the jobs are made easier by various mechanisms that either move the pig through the plant or help to make certain cuts.
Over 5 miles of conveyor belting runs throughout the facility.
The plant has 10 unique robots.
“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.
Some of the robots are equipped with saws. Those robots can make a perfect slice and sanitize its saw blades before the next pig enters the chamber.
“Meat packing 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 ran those by hand. The industry has made a lot of advancements in safety.”
And while there have been injuries to workers involving cuts and falls, major injuries have so far been avoided.
Null said if the Prestage plant was built in the 1980s or 1990s, it would have likely needed 250 more people.
But technology has automated away certain jobs that Null described as “very laborious.”
“We have definitely made it more efficient,” Null said. “It’s more capital intensive to build one (robot) because those aren’t free. We think it improves consistency of the process. And that took a lot of the hard jobs out of the plant.”
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,” Null said. “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 are saying.”
A global market
Prestage exports about 30% of its product to countries like China, Mexico, Japan and South Korea.
The recent 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. There’s 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 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, which 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. Prestage has a live pig and turkey operation.
“If for some reason, something isn’t doing well, we have other irons in the fire,” Null said.
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,” Null said. “The world has to eat.”
Null added 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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