*VMBB Senior Chief Of Staff*
Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Marty Robbins old hometown, Glendale Arizona--a suburb of Phoenix.
JUST NEVER THOUGHT ABOUT TURKEY THIS WAY....
November 23, 2011
In This Town, Turkey Picks Up Bill for Dinner
By KIM SEVERSON
OZARK, Ark. — Brenda Farmer and Willie Blanscet have sat across from each other on the Butterball bagging line for 17 years, 102 cold, raw turkeys sliding by in front of them every minute.
“Me and Willie look at each other and say, ‘How in the world can anybody eat this much turkey?’ ” Mrs. Farmer said.
For $11.40 an hour, the women, both in their 60s, cull the good from the bad.
The ones that are not bruised or missing a leg move down the line to be injected with brine, stuffed with a neck and a packet of giblets, then bagged and sent out into the world, where they land on holiday tables all over America.
The odds are good that yours may be one. The women, along with workers at another Butterball plant a 90-minute drive away, help produce about a third of the 43 million turkeys the nation will eat today, according to the National Turkey Federation.
This corner of northwest Arkansas is not the land of free-running heritage birds that command $16 a pound. A leisurely morning browsing the farmers’ market is not how most people spend a Saturday.
In this community of 3,000 on the Arkansas River, where everyone is cheering on the Hillbillies, the high school football team that made it to the state playoffs, turkey is an industry. And a job at the Butterball plant is one of the most reliable in town.
The median income in Franklin County is just over $30,000 a year. Unemployment is at 7.3 percent. Every week, a dozen or so people show up at the plant looking for work. Maybe two get hired, plant managers said.
It is not easy work. Turkeys need to be stunned and dispatched and gutted. Someone has to cut the oil gland out of the tail. Necks and gizzards and livers have to be cleaned and stuffed into a cavity. During a six-week period that begins in October, the line runs seven days a week to process fresh turkey. It is a period people in town simply refer to as “fresh,” and it is grueling.
“It’s a long battle when we’re working fresh, but I at least got some bills paid and Christmas money,” Mrs. Farmer said. “I just sit there and hum and sing and talk to my friend Willie. We get through it together.”
The millionth bird of the season rolled off the line in early November. The company managers made a little ceremony of it, taking photos of the workers along the line who helped process it. They gave the bird to a local World War II veteran, who got his picture in The Spectator, the local paper.
Other than a Baptist church sign that reads, “God will welcome even the biggest turkey,” a turkey giveaway organized by local merchants and some white feathers floating near the plant, there is not much indication that this town runs on turkey. There is no bronze turkey statue in the small town square, no Little Miss Turkey parade on the main street. Still, almost everyone works at the plant or knows someone who has. People who are new to town often end up there. Some stay for 40 years or more, and some leave as fast as they can.
Marty Taylor, 41, the local barber, spent a summer bagging turkeys. He was grateful he was not on the “vis line” — where turkeys get cleaned of their viscera. Still, it was enough to send him to barber school.
“It’s a job you get if you can’t get a job anywhere else,” he said.
The concerns that come with large-scale food production — among them pathogen contamination, worker safety, antibiotic use and animal welfare — are not often part of the conversation in Ozark.
People would rather talk about hunting, which is so popular that photos of children in camouflage holding their first deer take up an entire page in The Spectator.
That is not to say the Butterball corporation, which took over the plant from Cargill in 2006, does not have to confront such issues. The recall of more than 36 million pounds of ground turkey in August and September from a nearby Cargill plant was a good reminder that one slip in sanitation standards can have monumental effects.
And every Thanksgiving, the company is pelted with calls and e-mail messages regarding animal welfare.
The company still bears the scars from a 2006 undercover operation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which secretly recorded workers stomping and throwing turkeys so violently that it prompted an investigation by the United States Department of Agriculture.
There is also a class-action suit pending by workers who want to get paid for the time it takes them to suit up for work and sterilize equipment.
The violence was an anomaly, Butterball officials say. And they point to the benefits, solid wages and clear record of worker safety at the plant. They are proud of the quality of their birds. They even pull one off the line every day and roast it, just to make sure it tastes good.
“Just because we’re big doesn’t mean we are evil,” said Alice Johnson, a vice president in charge of food safety and government affairs. “We realize we are feeding families here.”
Ozark’s turkey farmers are not immune to the issues that are hurting farm communities everywhere. The cost of fuel and corn — much of which is getting diverted to make ethanol — makes it hard for the people who grow the turkeys to make a living.
Butterball growers, whose 90 farms are laced throughout the countryside here, work under contracts with the company. Every two or three months, a load of baby turkeys gets dropped off.
The company provides the feed, regulates how the birds should be raised and provides veterinary care. The farmer provides the long, low turkey houses and tends to the birds. When the hens are about 14 pounds and the toms about 22, a crew from Butterball comes in at night (turkeys are calmer at night) and hauls them off to the plant.
After accounting for the costs of raising the birds and their size, the farmer gets a check.
Lately, the company cannot find enough farmers, in part because banks are not as willing to lend money to build turkey operations.
For some, a turkey contract is no longer as attractive as it once was.
Joshua Freeman, 34, recently lost a race for mayor. He is in the bar business, in part because turkey farming did not pay enough. His father got out of the business after 15 years, he said, because Butterball kept requiring improvements just as the family got close to paying everything off and realizing profits.
“It was like working for the company store,” Mr. Freeman said. “You could never get ahead.”
He and others in town talk about ways to expand the economic base beyond turkey and the local Baldor Electric Company small-engine plant.
Maybe, some say, the town can land a local bottling company to get business from the wineries and microbreweries that are popping up in the Ozarks.
The economy is still bad here, but things are looking up. A new dollar store is going to open. So is a new dental clinic. And everyone is proud of the Arkansas Tech University campus in town.
But for Mrs. Farmer and Ms. Blanscet, it has always been and will always be about work at the turkey plant.
They pass the time talking about the weather and grandchildren and the stuff of life. Ms. Blanscet’s son is coping with cancer. Mrs. Farmer celebrated her 60th birthday with a trip to a nearby casino for a buffet and a few turns at the slot machine.
Like every other Butterball employee, they will each get a free frozen turkey for Thanksgiving. It will be given to relatives.
“You look at it every day, and you get to where you don’t really care for turkey,” Mrs. Farmer said. “That’s why I get a ham.”