As a Canadian company decides how to proceed with its stated plans for an industrial slaughterhouse in Great Falls, which could provide thousands of new jobs, an opposition movement is trying to keep it away from town.
Around 300 people packed a forum at the Great Falls civic center Saturday night to rally against the proposed 3,000 acre Madison Food Park.
Friesen Foods says its feedlot and livestock processing facility eight miles southeast of Great Falls would employ more than 3,000 people, which would make it one of the largest employers in the area.
Only Malmstrom Air Force Base and Benefis Health Care Center employ people on the same scale. The Air Force base, Great Falls’ biggest employer, had just over 3,500 people in 2017.
But speakers Saturday night said the facility would do more harm than good.
“Folks this is not rural economic development, this is rural economic desecration," John Ikerd told the crowd. Ikerd is a former professor of agriculture economics at the University of Missouri, and was one of the featured speakers at the event hosted by the Great Falls Area Concerned Citizens group.
Ikerd is advising the local group, along with other board members of the Oregon based Socially Responsible Agriculture Project. The project advocates for small farming and against the industrialization of agriculture.
“What can be more important to life than clean air, clean water, and safe and healthful food?” he asked.
Organizers of Saturday night’s event didn’t include any representatives from Friesen Foods. The company did not respond to Montana Public Radio’s request for an interview.
In August of 2017, Friesen applied for a special use permit with Cascade County. The company said its Madison Food Park would be, “state-of-the art, robotically controlled, environmentally friendly, multi-species food processing plant for cattle, pigs and chicken.”
A Friesen spokesperson told Montana Public Radio last fall that it plans to pay base wages that range from $15 to $22 dollars an hour, with full benefits. Management salaries would range from $45,000 to $85,000 dollars a year.
Don Stull, a former professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, pushed back on what some may consider a good economic offer to the community.
Stull, also board member of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, is the author of the book "SlaughterHouse Blues: The Meat and Poultry Industry of North America."
He warns Great Falls of what other towns have seen when a large food plant and slaughterhouse have set up shop.
“Growth, often rampant and explosive. Population mobility, dramatic increases in cultural and linguistic diversity, escalating crime, health and social problems, strain on infrastructure and social services," Stull said. "Packing houses exact a high price in illness and injury for many line workers. They also bring significant social and economic costs to host communities.”
The construction of the large industrial food park is not a sure thing. After Friesen’s initial application last year, the company retracted it. Members of the Great Falls Area Concerned Citizens group expect the company will file an amended application, but there’s no date set for when that will happen.
“The number of employees they project, I don’t know if we have the infrastructure, housing, schools for that," said Gary Zadick, an attorney in town who was among several people at the forum Saturday night who expressed doubt that Friesen’s plans would all work out for the best.
“But more concern to me is all the waste," Zadick said, "the smell, and the water. And we just don’t have the specifics on that. Other than fancy ads that say, ‘We’ll be responsibile.’
Zadick and others at the event said Montana has history of large businesses coming in and leaving permanent damage to the land and community.
But others see the food processing plant as giving a boost to Montana’s livestock industry.
Andy Kellom is a member of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. He manages about 10,000 head of cattle in Hobson, just east of Lewistown.
“The majority of cattle producers, we would view processing facility in the state as a positive," Kellom told MTPR in a telephone interview prior to Saturday night's event.
He says most cattle in Montana are currently shipped out-of-state for processing.
“And there’s a lot of dollars that would be kept here at home if we could capture that added value of the processing right here in Montana,” Kellom said.
Kellom says he understands the concerns about a giant slaughterhouse moving in the Great Falls area. But he says the modern packing plants he’s toured, like the one being proposed, have kept up with the times, and aren’t the kind of places people may have read about in Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, "The Jungle."
However the speakers at Saturday night’s event say industrial sized food parks around the country, like the one proposed by Friesen Foods, still attract and rely on immigrants and refugees to staff their workforce and the jobs often require repetitive tasks in harsh conditions.
The Great Falls Area Concerned Citizens group is planning to partner with the Montana Environmental Information Center in a possible legal challenge to the Madison Food Park, if plans for it move forward.