Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Drought Could Shrink Texas City

A crisis is brewing in Plainview, Texas.

Years of drought have reduced the once-mighty cattle industry anchored across the vast plains of west Texas to a scrawny herd, and recently, the city's largest employer, a beef processing plant, announced it was shutting down.

Forced to close because there isn't enough cattle nearby to justify its existence anymore.

For its relatively unpopulated region of the Lone Star State, Plainview is a sizable city, with approximately 22,000 residents.  Statistically, these 22,000 people live in 7,600 households.  And this plant that's closing, Plainview's largest employer by far, has 2,000 people on its $80 million annual payroll.

That means a lot of families will be hit hard when the plant, owned by Kansas-based Cargill, ceases operations on February 1.

That's this coming Friday.

Of course, they've seen it coming in Plainview.  Not only because the city sits on land about as flat as it gets, and seeing far into the distance is easy to do.  A company for which I used to work had a customer in Plainview, and after the president of our firm made a visit out there, he commented, "I've never seen a city with a more appropriate name."

Plain.  View.

All kidding aside, Friday's closure has been dreaded by Plainview for a while now because the drought they've been experiencing for the past several years has left the region with few options.  Ranchers can neither afford to fatten their herds for market nor maintain them on a meager diet, since their ranchland has withered up.  Imported food is costly, whether it's for us humans buying it at Whole Foods, or farmers trying to find it and truck it in from parts of the country that have it to spare.  West Texas has seen droughts before, but not like this one.

An ethanol plant in Plainview has been forced to shut down its primary operations due to the lack of corn, but it hopes to deploy its 45 employees on other ancillary assignments in its facility through the summer.  Cargill says it's already strung along its plant in Plainview for as long as it can, and considering how west Texas' drought is staring everybody there in the face, it's hard to fault the company.

Texas, after all, isn't the only state facing drought conditions.  And it's not like Cargill is shipping production to Mexico or China; this is pretty much a localized business they're in.  And the locale in which Plainview sits can't sustain it.

Workers at Cargill's plant weren't living like kings off of their salaries, but they were earning a good living that kept them in Plainview, paid the taxes that supported a robust public school system, and created a thriving community boasting a hospital, a Baptist college, and several museums.  Perhaps it's not the most exciting city on the planet, but considering how many communities across America's formerly "great" plains are shriveling up and blowing away like tumbleweeds, Plainview held its own, which is saying something good about the place.

Cargill's Plainview plant, meanwhile, churned out four percent of America's annual beef production all on its own.  Earlier this month, when the company first announced its plans for Plainview, live cattle futures collapsed, Cargill's operations were that important.  Indeed, it's a significant blow, not just to the city of Plainview and the plant's employees, but America's entire beef industry.  Experts predict that in the long run, as the market contracts to match production with cattle supply, the industry will be remain relatively healthy, even if collateral damage is suffered by folks in places like west Texas.  But it's small comfort to see such a hit coming due to something no rancher or food processor can control:  the weather.

Some Plainview residents know Who does control the weather, however, and yesterday, approximately 300 residents joined a dozen civic leaders and pastors to pray for rain and other solutions to the imminent economic disaster their city is facing.

And already, at least one company has begun poaching employees for its own plant in South Dakota, sending corporate recruiters to Plainview in search of experienced meat cutters willing to relocate.  Otherwise, the options for people wanting to stay in west Texas appear pretty slim.  Granted, the larger city of Lubbock, home to almost a quarter-million people and the acclaimed Texas Tech University, is only 40 miles or so from Plainview, and workers willing to commute may be able to find something in that far more bustling environment.  But however you look at it, losing 14% of a county's jobs in one day will change the social and economic landscape of Plainview for quite some time.
Before today, and before you read this essay, you'd probably never heard of Plainview, Texas.  And chances are, if you hear about this city again, it won't be in the most positive of contexts.  Some people would probably blame Plainview's misfortunes on global warming, since the historic drought plaguing our nation's midsection might be the result of ozone emissions.  Some people might shrug their shoulders and say a severe drought every now and then is part of the ecology of the Great Plains, and simply weeds out the stronger from the weaker.

Instead, I submit that the relevance of Plainview to you and me today isn't so much in the politically-charged debate it could foment, or a fatalistic factoid for academic historians, but the reality that God sometimes allows pain to afflict some people so that others of us will be jolted out of our own complacency.  We take far too many things in America for granted, especially when it comes to the food we eat, and the people who process it.

You and I will likely not see a shortage of beef in our grocery stores because of Cargill's shutdown in Plainview.  But that doesn't mean there isn't a shortage of beef.

A whole city in dusty west Texas can testify to that.

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