Blood, Sweat, and Supper

One week on the evisceration line

After a half hour, I stop looking at the birds. My rubber gloves fill with water and drip down my arms. When I get too close to the flesh with my nozzle, water and blood and fat spray back at me. Three times I take a face full.

"I hate the smell of turkey," someone says on smoke break. "My hair smells like turkey. My skin smells like turkey. My clothes smell like turkey. I can't stand it." It is an almost sweet smell, cloying and pervasive. Everything begins to smell of it. When I close my eyes at night, I see turkeys--pimpled skin, blood-dripping beaks, bruised meat, and always moving rapidly to the left.

The lunchroom at Jerome Foods features a cafeteria serving turkey products made from the birds employees eviscerate and debone. Most of the employees bring their own food.

Bill Cook

The tables are generally segregated: Somali women together, Somali men in another corner. Hispanics across the room. Whites off to one side. Supervisors huddled in the middle. At Jerome, fully 75 percent of employees are minorities, most from Somalia, then Mexico and Central America, then Cambodia, Laos, and other points east. Fifty percent speak no English.

I sit down next to a young Somali perched on the windowsill and strike up a conversation. We must listen very carefully and repeat everything twice in order to understand. Abdul (names of Jerome employees have been changed) tells me he left because of "the fought" back home.

Some 10,000 Somalis have come to Minnesota since civil war broke out in their country. At Jerome, they make up the largest minority group; they've overtaken the Mexicans who have been coming to work the fields in this part of the state for close to 100 years.

Somalis and Mexicans, it is commonly held, don't get along. Somalis "are very hostile," one Latino tells me. "If you talk to them, they respond in a hostile way. And Hispanics want to keep up their macho-type image. There's just a clash around the way they are and we are." The same man tells me that fights broke out earlier this year on the shop floor, something I keep in mind when I brush past strangers holding razor-sharp boning knives.

Abdul and I chit chat. He plans to stay in Faribault a year, maybe two. Then he wants to go back to school to learn electronics or computer science. I tell him this is my first shift at the factory. A broad smile spreads over his face, and he says in perfect English: "Welcome! Welcome to Jerome Foods!"

As the turkey industry expands, so does immigration. Some factories recruit in Texas border towns where unemployment is high. (Jerome officials say they do not do this.) Small towns across Minnesota like Faribault, Willmar, Montevideo, Marshall, Madelia, and Tracy all have experienced a dramatic increase in migrant and immigrant populations.

"Local white kids don't want to work in those factories anymore," explains Bob Lyman, a managing attorney at Migrant Legal Services in St. Paul. "As these companies have restructured and contended with unions, the white kids are basically going to walk on it."

Recent changes in immigration law have increased the labor supply. If you want to get your relatives into the country, you must make 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Lyman explains the rule: "Thou shalt not be admitted if you are a public charge. You have to prove to the Immigration and Naturalization Service that you can support the people you want to immigrate. Say the average family size is around five people. 125 percent of poverty for a family of five is $23,463. Migrant families tend to earn in the $5,000 to $10,000 range."

If migrants, who usually drift north for harvest and south for the winter, take a full-time job in the poultry factories of Minnesota and add a weekend job, they might be able to make 125 percent. "As soon as they can, they then bail out of poultry processing and get over to Nordic Track--not so much for the money, but for the sanity of the work." Or, once their families are safely in this country, they go back into the migrant labor stream.

At Jerome, only 15 percent of the employees who were working at the beginning of the year are still around. When you factor out the people who tend to stick around--supervisors, managers, vice presidents--the turnover in places like evisceration is even higher than the numbers indicate. Last year, Jerome's turnover was 150 percent. Health care, dental, retirement, and profit-sharing benefits generally kick in after two to 12 months. Most Jerome workers never make it that far.

When you're raising, slaughtering, and processing turkeys, any number of things can go wrong. First domesticated centuries ago in Mexico, the birds today are highly inbred. They are so fat, with such short legs, that they frequently get blisters on their breasts from dragging themselves around. Their bodies--engineered to produce a maximum amount of white meat--have swollen to the point where they can't naturally reproduce and must be bred by artificial insemination. They are susceptible to disease: In North Carolina, a virus has wiped out hundreds of millions of birds in the past several seasons.

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