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Thu March 7, 2013
Around the Nation

Shuttered Meat Packing Plant Could Be A Sign Of Things To Come In Texas

Originally published on Thu March 7, 2013 6:13 pm

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The city of Plainview, Texas has been a center of the cattle industry for decades. But a few weeks ago, after more than 40 years in operation, Plainview's beef processing plant shut its doors. Plant owners blame years of drought and the dwindling supply of cattle. As Mose Buchele reports from member station KUT, the closure could be a preview of things to come for the Texas plains.

MOSE BUCHELE, BYLINE: Plainview is like a lot of towns in west Texas. It's flat. It's windy. It can feel empty at midday. The day before the Cargill plant closed, the parking lot already looked half deserted. And leaving the building after his last shift was Johnny Ray Munise(ph). He was carrying a manila envelope.

JOHNNY RAY MUNISE: It's a valued Cargill employee award. A certificate of recognition is hereby awarded to Johnny Ray Munise as a valued Cargill employee for six years.

BUCHELE: Munise is one of 2,000 people that lost their jobs. That's around 15 percent of the city workforce. Some of them have little education and little hope of finding another good-paying job.

MUNISE: Now, we don't really have much but Wal-Mart distribution and a prison. We got a gas plant, but I don't have no idea about that.

BUCHELE: And it's not just workers at the plant who are worried. In downtown Plainview, it's easy to see how central the cattle industry is here. Images of cows and cowboys are on the street signs. Statues of cattle are everywhere, carved in wood, cast in metal, pressed in fiberglass. The problem is there are few real cows in the pastures. After years of drought, the country's cattle herd is at its lowest level since the 1950s.

And in Texas, the drought is one of the worst in decades. Across the state, ranchers have cut back their herds. Now, in Plainview, those cuts have hit the industrial heart of this small Texas city. Cargill Meat Solutions, the company that ran the plant, said there are not enough cows to keep the plant open. No work at the plant means less business everywhere else.

Tucked behind the grain elevator, the Frisco Bakery has served up pastries and steaming plates of Mexican food for a half century. The Hispanic population the restaurant caters to is the largest single demographic in town. Many of the laid-off workers are Hispanic. Irina Levas(ph) says business at the bakery is down.

IRINA LEVAS: We're very slow. We see the sales and as far as cutting the meat that we need for the week, you know, at regular time, it's been going down.

BUCHELE: Another company, a cleaner with contracts at the Cargill plant, has laid off 125 people. As one closure leads to another, around town, you hear this...

JOSE RICARDO IMAYA: Hopefully, it doesn't go to a ghost town.

BUCHELE: Over a breakfast plate, Jose Ricardo Imaya(ph) told me how his construction company lost millions when the plant closed. Some people got job offers at a factory in nearby Friona, Texas, but there's talk that plant might close if the drought continues. Other people have already moved farther away in search of work. Ghost town, Imaya said, is more than just a figure of speech.

IMAYA: A lot of the people, it's going to hurt them. To relocate somewhere else where they can find a life again, they have to sell what they have.

STEVE MURDOCH: That's, unfortunately, a not uncommon experience for the Great Plains of the United States.

BUCHELE: Steve Murdoch(ph) is to be the state's demographer. Now he's at Rice University. A lot has been made of the Texas population boom in recent years. But Murdoch says the Plains region of Texas has lost people. It started years ago. Now, the drought could speed that up. Here's Plainview Mayor Wendall Dunlap.

MAYOR WENDALL DUNLAP: Nobody is willing to let this community die because of this setback.

BUCHELE: The question is how. With tax revenue expected to plummet, Dunlap says the city will probably have to cut its budget and raise taxes. The school district is hard hit, too. As people leave, kids are getting pulled out of class. That means schools could lose millions of dollars in financing.

DUNLAP: It's hard to cut enough to offset all of these losses.

BUCHELE: That's the big picture. But people like Johnny Ray Munise are struggling right now.

MUNISE: Man, there's so many people that are heartbroken, you know. Their lives are kind of shattered here, you know.

BUCHELE: He says he'd like to stay in Plainview, but he's not sure what he'll do. Every time Munise makes plans, he says, they never turn out the way he expects them to. For NPR News, I'm Mose Buchele.

BLOCK: This story is part of our state impact project. It's a collaboration between NPR and member stations looking at the effects of state policy on people's lives. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.