Daily Archives: 13 November 2007

How Meat Factories, Mexicans, and Futbol Came to W. Kansas

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 230-232:

In the 1950s, the invention of the turbine water pump allowed [people in western Kansas] finally to suck water from the massive Oglalla Acquifer, a sea of underground freshwater that stretches under the High Plains from South Dakota to Texas and New Mexico. New irrigation systems let them spread that water across wide swaths of land and decreased the threat of drought. Farmers could grow huge amounts of grain-corn, milo, and alfalfa—which could be fed to cattle. With that came the cattle feed yard.

In 1951, a Garden City farmer named Earl Brookover built the first cattle feed yard in Kansas, with large pens in which cattle ate locally grown grain from a trough. Cattle fattened faster and more efficiently—on high-protein milo, corn, and alfalfa—than when they grazed aimlessly on the range. Dozens of ranchers opened feedlots across the High Plains. The Irsik family, another feedlot operator near Garden City, built the first processor that turned corn into cattle feed. Today, there is feed yard space for a million head of cattle within a sixty-mile radius of Garden City.

Poets would find potent symbols of America’s vanished frontier in these yards, with their acres of penned and tagged cattle that once roamed the range. The cowboy was now as penned in as the cattle. He rode from yard to yard, culling the sick head.

Still, the feed yard changed the American diet. The price of beef dropped. On rangeland, cattle exercised as they grazed, making their meat lean and tough, so not much of the animal was usable for anything other than hamburger or pot roasts. America’s hamburger tradition was due to the fact much of the range-fed cattle was appetizing only when it was ground up with some of the animal’s fat. But in feed yards, cattle didn’t move much, so their meat was fattier and thus more tender and better tasting. Demand for beef rose. This added protein to the U.S. diet. Cattle producers could now harvest more profitable specialty cuts—brisket, chuck, inside skirt, flatiron, and flank steaks—from all over the animal.

Brookover’s idea was to keep in Kansas what was raised in Kansas. Up to that point, Kansas and a lot of rural America resembled the Third World: its commodities—cattle and corn, in this case—were shipped away to be transformed into more profitable products elsewhere. The feed yard transformed Kansas corn into a more profitable product—cattle. Thus a bit more of the wealth that these rural communities produced remained in the area.

By the 1970s, southwest Kansas was a cattle center unlike anything early settlers could have dreamed. Yet it was only a hint of what was coming.

The man who completed the transformation of southwest Kansas— and changed America in the process—was a tall, jowly fellow with a slow Iowa drawl named Andy Anderson.

Anderson cofounded a company known as Iowa Beef Packers—later IBP. Anderson had intense energy and creativity where building things was concerned. He’d been a butcher, then a meat wholesaler in Los Angeles. Anderson had no schooling in engineering but would become an expert, and endless tinkerer, in the science of meat-packing and refrigeration. He built the meat-packing plant of the future.

Meat-packing began in the big cities, near large populations of workers, many of whom were Eastern European immigrants. Legions of well-paid union butchers in Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City slaughtered the cattle that came in on trains from the High Plains. Anderson and IBP moved the meat industry to the small town in the American heartland where the cattle were raised. Anderson retired from IBP in 1970 and died in 1990 at the age of seventy-one. But by then, he and IBP had reinvented the way meat was slaughtered and sold. They’d also ended butcher unions and brought millions of Mexican immigrants to the heartland.

In 1960, Anderson and his partner, Currier Holman, used a U.S. Small Business Administration loan to form IBP in the town of Denison, Iowa. Anderson applied assembly-line principles to the disassembly of cattle. In this factory, the jobs of slaughtering, cutting, vacuum wrapping, and boxing the meat for shipping were mechanized and consolidated under one roof. His factories broke down these tasks until anyone could do them. A production line would send a cow carcass on a hook through the plant. A worker would make one cut, then the carcass moved to the next worker, who made another cut, and so on, until the skeleton remained. The cuts were then sealed in plastic and boxed for shipment.

This passage merely serves as background to a long and fascinating story about how Latino-dominated soccer displaced Anglo-dominated football as the top sport in Garden City High School, Kansas, in 2003.


Filed under economics, Mexico, migration, U.S.