The Poultry Plant That’s Changed the Face of This Appalachian Town

Aug 15, 2019

When Sheena Van Meter graduated from Moorefield High School in 2000, her class was mainly comprised of the children of families that had long-planted roots in West Virginia’s eastern Potomac Highlands. Some were African American. Most were white. And for the Moorefield resident, the closest exposure she had to other cultures, before leaving for college, came in the form of an occasional foreign-exchange student. 

Since Van Meter returned to her alma mater in 2011, first as a behavioral specialist, then as a principal, and, now, as superintendent of Hardy County Schools, she’s witnessed the makeup of Moorefield’s classrooms change dramatically in a short amount of time. It has become a place where cultures collide, where Spanish, Burmese and English are spoken together on playgrounds, where refugee children try to regain new footing in a foreign land and where longtime residents, both students and their teachers, try to make space for change.

Hardy County’s Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Stauderman says they don’t really have a choice. “And she’s right,” Van Meter said. “We’re trying to do everything we can with the limited funding that we have.”

Over the last 10 years, Hardy County has become the most diverse school system in West Virginia. It has the highest percentage of English Learners (or “EL”), a term Hardy County Schools uses for students whose first language is not English. Of the approximately 2,300 students currently enrolled in Hardy County, 15 percent are considered English Learners. Every EL student in the county, except for one, attends Moorefield’s schools, which has become one of the strongest and rare examples of cohesion and integration between varying ethnic groups within a community that has been slow and sometimes non-reactive in embracing its newcomers.

Families are immigrating to Moorefield, some under refugee status, from around the world, coming from countries like Myanmar (formerly Burma), Vietnam, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guatemala and others. Today, 18 different languages are spoken in Hardy County Schools. 

This swift change is not because Moorefield has found a new, successful campaign for combating West Virginia’s declining and aging population. It hasn’t declared itself an asylum city. But instead, it sits at the center of West Virginia’s poultry industry. And in Moorefield, you don’t have to look far to explain how a town of less than 2,500 has become one of the most diverse places per capita in the state. 

Just follow the 18-wheelers driving past the high school, hauling live chickens down Moorefield’s Main Street. They’ll lead you to the answer.  

Depending on the way the wind’s blowing, it can be hard to forget there’s a chicken plant in the center of town. 

Built along a bend in the South Branch of the Potomac River, Pilgrim’s Pride houses three plants situated together within Moorefield’s city limits: a fresh plant, where chickens are killed and made into various cuts of meat; a prepared foods plant that turns the meat into value-added products like chicken nuggets; and a rendering plant that uses the leftover parts to make pet food and other things. Depending on the weather that day and what’s happening at the plant, the air throughout town often contains an odor that’s hard to miss, a putrid-like mixture that can make the olfactory system think of waste or death. This reporter also noticed a warm, salty seasoning smell around the prepared foods plant, similar to putting your nose in a bowl of $1 chicken-flavored ramen.

“Everybody complains about the smell,” said Amy Fabbri, an adult English as a Second Language Teacher in Moorefield. “And the response is always, ‘It’s the smell of money.’” 

If the smell doesn’t grab you, the large tractor-trailer trucks driving down Main Street, passing Moorefield’s library and shrinking downtown district, might do the trick. Or the hundreds of workers exiting doors on a shift’s change. Many cross the street in droves, walking to their cars in adjacent gravel lots. Most of the migrant workers in particular take off down the sidewalks, as many don’t own cars. At least, not yet. 

Gravel lots surround Pilgrim’s Pride property, welcoming employees who travel from surrounding counties to work at the chicken processing plant. While at the same time, many of the company’s migrant workers, who live in Moorefield, walk to work.
Credit Justin Hayhurst / 100 Days in Appalachia

Pilgrim’s size and hold in the community would be similar to a coal mine in West Virginia’s Raleigh or McDowell County, back when coal was king, said Chris Claudio. He grew up in Moorefield and lives there today. More than 1,700 people work at the Pilgrim’s location. It’s the largest employer in the county and trumps the second largest, American Woodmark Corporation, by around 1,000 workers, according to Hardy County’s Development Authority. And for the 125 migrant and refugee families that have enrolled their children in Hardy County Schools, it’s the employer name almost all write on forms.  

“In coal mining communities, everyone is connected to the industry, whether you do it yourself or you have a family member or a friend [that does],” Claudio said. “That’s definitely the case in Moorefield.” 

Pilgrim’s plant in Moorefield has become fully integrated, meaning Pilgrim’s Pride maintains ownership over the entire process from chicken to egg and back again. It’s known as vertical integration, a common practice in the chicken industry, where the company even supplies the local, contract farmers with specific birds to raise and the proper feed to give them. Pilgrim’s is a supplier to giant companies including KFC, Sysco and Popeye’s. To meet demand, the plant kills an average of 450,000 chickens per day over the course of two shifts. That totals up to 2.2 million birds per week, according to a factsheet provided by the company.    

It’s a system in endless demand of workers. For the first half of this year, a large, wooden sign sat directly across the street from Pilgrim’s plant, positioned to catch motorists’ attention driving south along Main Street. In large bold letters it read: “Pilgrim’s: Now hiring. Apply within.”  

They’re always hiring. 

Poultry worker turnover ranges from 40 percent to as high as 100 percent annually, according to a 2012 report published in the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law. If you ask local officials why Pilgrim’s has begun recruiting and hiring high volumes of migrant workers over the last 10 to 15 years, they’ll tell you it’s a basic supply and demand equation. 

“It’s not that there aren’t enough people to work,” said Mallie Combs, economic development director of Hardy County. “It’s that there aren’t enough people who want to do those jobs.” 

“I think that’s an easy answer,” said Dr. Angela Stuesse, an anthropologist who has spent years studying poultry plants’ recruitment of Latin American immigrants in Mississippi. “… to say, ‘Oh, people don’t want to do the work.” 

“Instead of asking, ‘Why is the work so poor that nobody wants to do it?’”  

When Chris Claudio attended Moorefield schools, if Pilgrim’s Pride wasn’t in the foreground — on hot days the smell from the plant seemed to travel further, he said — then it was always in the background. The company’s logo was printed on pencils he used in class. Students would show up wearing company T-shirts their parents had received. And for lunch, it didn’t matter the day, there was always a chicken option in the food line.  

Students leaving Moorefield High know if they don’t make it out of town, they always have the plant to fall back on, Claudio said. 

“It’s not comparable to a coal miner’s wage, but a decent wage without education,” Claudio said. The average yearly wage for a worker in meat, poultry or fish trimming is $27,790, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

For many of Claudio’s peers, when they roll the Pilgrim’s hiring dice, they just hope they aren’t placed on a fresh plant line.   

In the fresh plant, where chickens are slaughtered and turned into cuts of meat, workers stand for eight hours or more in freezing conditions — low temperatures are maintained to better preserve the birds — repeating the same motions over and over again. Many are wielding knives and trying to keep up with the high-speed of the line to slice, gut or trim chickens swinging past on mechanized hooks, which can easily lead to accidents.  

“Poultry workers often endure debilitating pain in their hands, gnarled fingers, chemical burns, and respiratory problems,” according to a 2013 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

The slaughtering of chickens has become more and more mechanized, which means that the human labor required to support that process has become less-skilled, monotonous motions repeated again and again. That’s the kind of job most of the migrant workers receive when they start out at Pilgrim’s in Moorefield. The majority are immediately placed on night-shift, the least desirable shift, in the freezing cold fresh plant. 

But hiring migrant workers to complete these unskilled, repetitive and grueling tasks isn’t unique to Moorefield. For more than 20 years, poultry companies across the nation have intentionally diversified their workforce, Stuesse said. 

In the chicken plants of Mississippi, which Steusse wrote about in her 2016 book “Scratching Out a Living,” Latin American migrants were recruited in the mid-1990s to work alongside African American employees at the plant. African Americans at the Mississippi plants had “amassed enough power to start forming unions and negotiating their wages,” Stuesse said, “and it was at that moment that the industry was also expanding to more shifts, and so reaching out for workers from different places met both of those needs.”

The plants at Moorefield, both the fresh plant and the prepared foods, are considered non-union facilities. One of the ways poultry companies try to keep costs low, Stuesse said, is to pay workers less.  

Located along Main Street in Moorefield, it’s impossible to miss the massive size, and sometimes smell, of Pilgrim’s presence in a town of less than 2,500 people.
Credit Justin Hayhurst / 100 Days in Appalachia

“One way to pay workers less is to make sure they are not organized and able to collectively bargain with their employer to set the terms of their labor and working conditions,” she added. 

How do poultry companies ensure that workers aren’t organized? 

They hire migrants and refugees, Stuesse said, and, in doing so, can flip the construct of a working-class, racially homogenous rural town on its head. 

In response to its hiring practices, Pilgrim’s Pride said it considers the diversity of its team to be one of its greatest strengths. 

“Labor challenges exist across our industry,” the company said in a prepared statement, “and we are focused on recruiting the right candidates who will thrive in our culture and want to spend their careers with us.” 

Whether or not Moorefield’s immigrants and refugees are thriving in their new, poultry home, well, that’s a question for them.  

Part Two of Remaking Moorefield, will explore how this small, West Virginia town is responding to its new, diverse neighbors. And what local folks, if any, are doing to bring people together.