Small Minnesota town braces for economic shock if a pork plant buyer doesn’t emerge

Source: Star-Tribune

By early June, HyLife plans to close its factory in Windom. Unless a buyer emerges, more than 1,000 workers will be out of a job. Many in town are wondering what’s next.



he men sit in the lobby of an unmarked hotel in Mankato. They work at the HyLife pork plant an hour west in Windom. Two weeks ago, officials handed them a sheet of paper saying the plant was closing.

They’d soon be going home to Guanajuato.

But they’re not ready yet.

“We all came with one goal, an illusion of a better life,” a HyLife worker said on Wednesday.

The man, who declined to give his name fearing retaliation from the company for speaking to the press, is one of many from the same central Mexican city now living at the HyLife-owned hotel. They’re in southern Minnesota on H-2 visas to butcher hogs.

And make money for their families.

By early June, HyLife, a Canadian-based pork processor, plans to close its factory in Windom. Unless a buyer emerges, more than 1,000 workers will be out of a job. Many in town are wondering what’s next.

The workers in the hotel say they’ve bought homes, cars, pieces of land in Mexico for their families based on the promise of a multiyear contract. They’ve finished only a year.

One worker, tapping his key card on the glass lobby table, said he can make in one hour at HyLife in Windom what took him a week to make in wages at home.

HyLife has said it is working to find a new buyer.

“If the new owners will hire us with certainty? Will they keep the same people or bring in their own?” one worker said. “That’s the detail we need.”

Others in the town of 4,800 people are looking for answers, too.

Janet Hernandez, the Latina grocer

Windom, the seat of Cottonwood County, straddles a highway and a rail line. Like other meatpacking towns in southern Minnesota, the workers have arrived from around the world.

Downtown, ringing the neoclassical courthouse, a bustling business district features an Asian food market, an old-school movie theater advertising the “Super Mario Bros. Movie” and a Mexican grocer.

Janet Hernandez, 26, owns Latino Universal store with her boyfriend. Crates of prickly nopales, betabel and potatoes sit near the entrance. Ornamental Virgin Marys rise on shelves above aspirin.

Since the announced closure of HyLife, Hernandez said they’ve cut back on inventory.

“[Many] of them that came here from Mexico, they are the majority of the ones who buy from us,” she said.

Out front, a representative from Quality Pork Processors — the processor that supplies Austin, Minn.-based Hormel — is in town to recruit displaced workers, handing out business cards to customers as they leave the store.

HyLife pay starts around $20 an hour. A billboard on the highway for the JBS plant 30 minutes southwest in Worthington offers $26 an hour.

Hernandez opened just before the pandemic. She’s survived one economic downturn. Now, she worries about another.

Serge Etse, the slaughterhouse worker

Across the street and up a steep staircase, African immigrants rest before returning to the plant for the second shift.

Serge Etse left Togo in fear of political retribution for his opposition to President Faure Gnassingbé, whom he calls an autocrat.

“Our president is the son of the last president,” said Etse, who recently received asylum in the U.S. “So in 2021, I left my country.”

The 49-year-old rubs his knee. Last year, a pig fell from an elevated hook, crushing Etse’s knee. A month ago he had surgery.

A Catholic devotional rests under Etse’s laptop. Etse’s wife visited once. Their three children — two teenage girls and an adolescent son — are in Lomé, the capital of Togo. Back home, he leads the choir in church. He’s sung only once in Windom. But he said he’ll sing again in church if his family comes to Windom.

“In Windom, we don’t have a lot of jobs here,” Etse said. Without HyLife, Etse said he’d pack his few things in his Mercury sedan and go looking for a new job. But he’d prefer to stay.

Scott Rocker, the carpenter-landlord

The packing plant in Windom was first a beef plant. Then, beginning in 2016, it processed hogs. In 2020, HyLife took over. Headquartered in Manitoba, the company is owned by Charoen Pokphand Foods, an agribusiness based in Thailand, and the Japanese conglomerate Itochu Corp.

According to the Cottonwood County Citizen newspaper, more than 100 students of the district’s 1,000-plus enrollment have at least one parent employed at HyLife.

Now it appears the company may be just another temporary tenant.

Scott Rocker stands, with a varnish stain rag hanging from the pocket of his flannel shirt, outside his shop downtown. He moved away for 20 years before returning to Windom.

“When I was a younger person I didn’t pay much attention,” Rocker said of the plant.

Now, though, he’s a landlord in town.

“I got another apartment where the wife works [at HyLife], and the husband works in the pork plant over in Worthington,” Rocker said. “She’s going to lose her job, and she’s also expect[ing a baby].”

Rocker said Windom’s housing stock has long been insufficient for the community’s blue-collar families. A half-finished housing complex sits near the railroad tracks. It was meant to house HyLife workers.

HyLife’s operations hummed during COVID-19 with the surge of demand for meat. The workforce grew to more than 1,000, split between two shifts, killing 5,000 hogs a day.

“We were kind of liking that there are people who had incomes and they’re honest people who just know the rent’s due the first of the month,” he said.

Rocker said he sold a home to a couple working at HyLife just last summer.

“I don’t know,” Rocker said about that couple’s fate. “It’s going to be a tough situation.”

Gary Elsbecker, man at the dog park

Four small dogs spin around Gary Elsbecker’s feet, tangling leashes, as he exits the dog park near the Des Moines River.

“Somebody’s going to benefit,” he said, of the closure. “And somebody’s going to lose badly over this.”

Elsbecker grew up in Jackson, Minn., another southwestern Minnesota town with agriculture roots. He understands that meatpacking workers hopscotch between the towns — often on daily commutes — for jobs. The turkey plant in Marshall. The poultry plant in Butterfield.

“A lot of my colleagues [at my job] had family members who worked at this pack[ing house] or that pack down in Worthington,” Elsbecker said.

A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis notes that, while clamoring for workers across food and agriculture industries is high, international immigration is just a fraction of what it once was. In 2016, more than 1 million immigrants arrived in America. By 2021, it dropped to fewer than 250,000 workers.

Those missing workers, the bank concludes, would fill the jobs Americans won’t do. The overnight ones. Working slaughterhouses. Pushing hogs. Cleaning factories.

“It’s not just the guys who are in the village raising the hogs,” Elsbecker said. “You’ve got truckers driving trucks, and the guys got to produce the grain to feed all these hogs.

“It’s all kinds of interconnected stuff.”

Erica Flores, the Taco Lady

On Fridays, Erica Flores serves tacos out of her home. Cars line her quiet street.

Last week, she sat on her couch. Her 12-year-old daughter sat next to her, watching “Encanto.”

HyLife’s announcement took her back to the last big round of layoffs.

“The first thing coming in my mind [was], ‘That happened again!’ “

Flores said she was sad when she lost her job at HyLife last year. Her fiancé works as a maintenance employee at Poet, the ethanol plant, and the family needed income. So in August, she started selling tacos, using her mom’s recipe.

What differentiates the tacos, she said, is the meat on the spit — tacos “de trompo,” she said. “Auténtico.”

She also works at a cafe in Heron Lake.

“In the mornings, all the seniors go and drink coffee, and that was what we were talking the whole week,” Flores said.

Sergio, the H-2 worker

A man in bright red shirt and shorts walks through downtown Windom to pay his rent. He identifies himself only as Sergio, fearful of retribution from his employer.

“I don’t know if I should tell the [landlord] if this is going to be the last month.”

He previously worked at a HyLife hog processing plant in Salvatierra, Guanajuato, before transferring to Windom three years ago.

“How do I explain? It’s like they yanked a part from under you because you already have economic stability and an emotional connection,” he said.

An H-2 visa enables U.S. employers to hire foreign workers. He said his fellow H-2 workers sought to “do it right.” Get ID’s. Pay taxes.

Sergio said he doesn’t want to badmouth the company.

“They gave me an experience in another country, a first-world country.”

In response to a series of questions sent by the Star Tribune, HyLife said the company understood the “challenging circumstances” for both their employees and people of Windom.

“We sincerely appreciate the ongoing commitment of our hard-working team during these trying times,” continued the HyLife statement.

Some workers left town immediately upon word of the closure.

At the “HyLife Hotel” in Mankato, jugs of juice and cans of pop line windows. A young couple walks the hallways holding hands.

A worker in a Twins cap said he’s been treated so well. He promises to return the favor if he goes home. But he’s not ready yet. He said he came here with a goal.

“The economy?” he said. “You can’t compare [between the U.S. and Mexico]. That’s why we left everything we know and love.”

On the wall, near the row of flags — U.S., Mexico, Canada — a mounted television blared rotating messages from the company. Briefly, the screen changes to the next aphorism: “Turning challenges into opportunities.”