Imperial Valley slaughterhouse closure worries locals

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Imperial County in Southern California produces food for much of the country. The economy there depends on agriculture and cattle.  Reporter Caitlin Esch has more on why the planned shutdown of a local beef processing plant is threatening to upset an entire region.

Cattleman Bill Brandenburg walks around a feedlot in Heber, California, a small town just a few miles north of the Mexico border. He and his business partner have a total of four feedlots with 60 employees and 40,000 head of cattle in Imperial County. The bulls are shipped off to a processing plant where they are killed and turned into steaks.

Cattle graze on an Imperial Valley feedlot. Photo by Caitlin Esch.
Cattle graze on an Imperial Valley feedlot. Photo by Caitlin Esch. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But come May, National Beef in Brawley is closing. For Brandenburg and other cattleman, that spells a crisis. The next nearest slaughterhouse is 200 miles away, outside Phoenix. And, since that facility cannot handle all the Imperial Valley cattle, some would need to go to the next nearest plant– a thousand-mile journey to Texas.

Between the transportation costs, and the reduced quality of the meat after all that hard travel, Brandenburg estimates he’d lose about $130 a head in profit.

“And that’s not acceptable at all,” Brandenburg said. “I mean you’re not gonna stay in business very long doing that.”

The Brawley plant was started as a cooperative of cattle feeders in 2002. Back then, it was known as Brawley Beef. As cattle processing plants in Southern California were closing, the feedlots needed a place to send their animals locally. So the cattlemen got together and built an $80 million facility. About 5 years later, they sold to National Beef, the fourth largest beef processor in the US.

“We decided we are cattle feeders first, that’s what we enjoy doing and that’s what we’re good at doing and we’re not in the packing business,” Brandenburg said.

National Beef officials say they’re closing the Brawley plant because it doesn’t process enough beef to make it profitable. 1,300 workers will lose their jobs. But it’s not just the plant workers. The closure will ripple through the entire local economy – affecting truckers, restaurant owners, composters, even farmers.

“Literally, some estimates have been as high as 4,000 jobs,” said George Nava, the Mayor Pro Tem of Brawley.

“We feed the world. I think it’s real important that for the majority of us that live in the big cities, that outside of boundaries of your city limits, there’s a whole different world in this state,” said Councilman Don Wharton.

Back on the feedlot, there’s some immediate work to be done. Bill Brandenburg says he’ll be moving most of his cattle to other parts of California or out of state to Texas or Kansas. He says the other Imperial Valley feedlots will likely do the same. And that means, they’ll be laying off a lot of workers.

“All of the employees are very nervous because they know as the cattle numbers drop, that employment in the feed yards are gonna drop,” Brandenburg said.

Brandenburg has been in the cattle business in the Imperial Valley for 40 years.

“I would say it’s a major setback,” Brandenburg said. ” I don’t know that it’s the end of cattle feeding. There will always be cattle feeding here, it’s just gonna be much different than it is today.”

How much different? That’s the big question.