How Tyson Foods Kills Small Rural Towns

Big industrial meat companies, such as Tyson and Smithfield Foods, practice vertical integration. Small rural towns suffer when the companies crush local economies.

| December 2014/January 2015

One of the biggest myths about U.S. farming is that there’s no money in it. Small farming towns, the thinking goes, have died over the last 50 years because there’s no profit to be made in this largely backward-looking business. This would be a sad reality if it were true, but it’s not. Farming is immensely profitable. The agriculture sector is one of the richest, most productive machines of modern business. The critical question isn’t whether there’s money in agriculture, but, rather, where does the money go?

Visiting a town like Waldron, Ark., which is home to a massive poultry plant operated by Tyson Foods, supports the misperception. About a million chickens a week may be killed at such a Tyson plant, and the giant slaughterhouse is an impressive industrial machine. Waldron’s residents refer to it simply as “The Complex,” because the plant isn’t just a factory — it’s more like an entire small-town economy consolidated onto one property. The several-acre compound contains its own trucking line, feed mill and hatchery, and a slaughterhouse. This complex alone churns out chickens from their beginnings as eggs to finished food products that are worth millions of dollars each year.

Yet Waldron itself seems to be suffocating economically. Many of the businesses along the small downtown strip are boarded up. On Saturday night, Waldron’s Main Street is quiet to the point of abandonment. The new strip mall downtown is vacant, with black garbage bags peppering its empty parking lot. The sole locus of activity, before it closed in April, was the renovated Scott County Movie Theater, which drew a crowd for its single screening of the night. A young woman named Frankie Watson took tickets, chatting with the clientele. People are so poor in Waldron, Watson says, that the Great Recession of 2007 and 2008 largely passed them over, unnoticed.

The perpetual hard times in small towns such as Waldron stand in stark contrast to the fortunes being made by Tyson Foods and other big food companies that operate on the fringes of rural landscapes. In 2013 alone, Tyson cleared a record $778 million in pure profit. And that was during a tough year in which consumers were dining out less and buying fewer precooked meals, which are Tyson’s real cash cow. Other industrial agriculture companies were just as successful.

This article is based on reporting from my book, The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, which explores how Tyson Foods pioneered the industrial system that now dominates the food market. Today, many companies have adopted the Tyson business model, including Hormel, Swift, Cargill, Smithfield Foods and Foster Farms. Tyson’s operations reflect the broader realities of a centralized, highly concentrated meat industry, as well as the effects this system has on small-town economies.

If the money isn’t circulating in places like Waldron — if it isn’t in the hands of Frankie Watson or the teenagers who visited the theater where she worked — then where has all the money gone?

3/22/2015 8:14:16 PM

Being somewhat familiar with Waldron Arkansas I can say in my opinion Tyson isn't the problem there. The problems in Waldron started with the completion of the Hwy. 71 bypass and was finalized with the building of the big Walmart store on the bypass. And for the record I am not a fan of either Tyson or Walmart.

12/24/2014 12:52:46 PM

How about a slaughterhouse for CEOs of the meat industry?

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