A farm-belt town goes global, and thrives

Postville, Iowa, broadened its immigrant workforce and saved a local industry

Meatpacking is an enduring tradition in Iowa, where many of the nation's cattlemen and pig farmers have shipped their livestock to be butchered for more than a century.

Throughout much of that time, small-town Iowa, famous for its Scandinavian roots and blue-collar work ethic, supplied a steady stream of young laborers straight from its own farms.

The labor pool has dramatically shifted. An inside look at a present-day factory here in Postville reveals a workforce that defies the Midwest stereotype.

At the AgriProcessors plant, bearded Jewish rabbis wearing yellow helmets and plastic goggles inspect the meat.

A few feet away, Mexican and Russian immigrants stand shoulder to shoulder on the butchering line, slicing bone and fat from the meat that rolls down the conveyor belt. In the next room, a group of Bosnians load packages onto a forklift.

The factory's broad diversity, experts say, has its roots in a deep demographic change. Younger workers have left rural Midwestern towns in droves over the past decade, choosing to settle in larger cities like Chicago and Minneapolis.

The exodus threatened to all but erase hamlets like Postville from the map.

But a vacuum of labor in the town's two meatpacking plants attracted hundreds of immigrant workers.

The result: The town's population has soared, jumping from 1,472 in 1990 to 2,273 last year.

The renewal of Postville's workforce is now being cited as a template for small-town survival, as well as for the survival of a key regional industry.

Meatpacking jobs in Iowa were once highly sought after. In the early 1980s, however, the major processors began to lower wages dramatically and accelerate production. Labor soon became scarce.

Personnel was Aaron Rubashkin's primary need when he bought Postville's defunct packing plant in 1987. The kosher food merchant from Brooklyn, N.Y., first began flying rabbis in from New York to prepare the meat for Jews who adhere to strict dietary laws.

Dozens of rabbis settled in Postville. With them came their families, and other Orthodox Jews looking for work. Still, most of the local residents were no longer willing to settle for a factory job.

"The Iowa work ethic isn't the same anymore," says Doug All, a manager at the plant. "Meatpacking isn't glamorous, so they don't want the work."

Looking to border towns, and beyond

The plant began looking for workers not only outside of Iowa, but overseas. Ten years later, 60 percent of the factory's workforce is composed of immigrants, according to Donald Hunt, the plant's general manager. The new labor pool has also changed the face of Postville: The town's Hispanic population, for example, has jumped from zero in 1990 to 469 in 2000.

Rubashkin began recruiting in border towns in California and Texas. The ensuing flood of migrant labor was largely prompted by word of mouth, says Mark Grey, director of Northern Iowa University's New Iowans program in Cedar Falls.

Most of Postville's Hispanics, according to Mr. Grey, came from El Barril, a village in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. During a recent trip with Postville's mayor to a village nearby Barril, Grey discovered that half the village's cars have Iowa license plates.

"When a handful move into a community like Postville, they establish a beachhead for everyone else," says Grey.

A workforce that's here to stay?

Now, a walk through Postville is not unlike a ride on a New York City subway car. Amid the abandoned sandstone buildings on West Greene Street sits La Mexicana, a restaurant and variety store selling traditional Mexican food, religious icons, soccer balls, and sombreros.

Across the street, a kosher deli called Jacob's Market sells salami and challah bread. Farther down the block, a group of three Bangladeshis sit on their apartment doorstep.

Like many immigrants elsewhere, the three men send more than half their paychecks back home.

So does Luis Barrios, who left Mexico two years ago for landscaping work in Colorado and now processes turkey meat here. "My family needs the money more than I do," says Mr. Barrios.

Such anecdotes put a wrinkle in Postville's economic renaissance, prompting some experts to question the degree to which these immigrants are contributing to the town's economy - and whether they even plan to stay for the long term.

Some of the first to come to the plants here have bought homes. More may stay if President Bush's "guest worker" concept gains ground. But according to Grey, money sent back home now represents the third-largest source of income in Mexico, behind oil and tourism.

Postville has not gone without social strife. The Hasidic community has drawn criticism for separating themselves from the rest of the town.

But Gershon Goldman, who began working here during the early 1990s, says Hasidic workers have the town's best interests in mind. "We're isolated by nature," says Mr. Goldman. "We want to make a living, but benefit the town."

Many longtime residents are reluctant to embrace the town's quick transformation, but most understand that the demographic tide is against them: There are more people over the age of 85 in Iowa per capita than in any other state.

"I'd rather go through growing pains than through shrinking," says one 50-year resident, who preferred not to give his name.

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