Smithfield Foods announced Friday it is closing the majority of its operation in Beaver County, prompting an outcry from the rural community.
County officials noted the company is the area's largest employer, and they contend the closure will affect more than 250 jobs — a number a Smithfield spokesman disputes.
During an emergency meeting after the announcement, county and city leaders expressed fear of how the closure could create a ripple effect on the local economy. The county in southwest Utah has a population of about 6,500 people, according to U.S. census data.
"My family was able to return to Beaver County 15 years ago because I was able to be employed at Smithfield Foods, and so I deeply empathize with those fellow employees, their families, contractors, contract growers, their families, all of the affected businesses, our partners at the school district," Beaver Mayor Matt Robinson said.
The Beaver County Commission declared a state of economic emergency.
"It impacts a lot of family, friends and all," County Commissioner Mark Whitney said. "We can truly feel in our hearts and souls how many people this can devastate."
Whitney said county leaders have been speaking with state and federal leaders about the situation.
Leaders in the emergency proclamation pled for "all municipal, state and national governments and organizations to assist the county by providing resources to explore ways to maintain the hog operation in Beaver and Iron County and to provide for processing in a responsible and economic profitable manner."
County leaders noted federal and state funding exists for such situations.
When asked by a resident whether workers could create an independent packing plant, Whitney said the county does not have the workforce to do so. He said leaders plan to work "collaboratively" with Smithfield to find solutions moving forward.
Smithfield Foods announced in a news release Friday that it is ceasing all harvest and processing operations in Vernon, California, early next year and plans to "align its hog production system by reducing its sow herd in its Western region."
That includes decreasing its sow herd in west-central Utah and potentially exiting its farms in Arizona and California, according to Smithfield Foods. The company said it is taking those steps due to the "escalating cost of doing business in California."
Company officials said they are providing "transition assistance" to affected employees, including offering relocation options within the company and incentives to continue business until early next year.
"We are grateful to our team members in the Western region for their dedication and invaluable contributions to our mission. We are committed to providing financial and other transition assistance to employees impacted by this difficult decision," Smithfield COO Brady Stewart said in the statement.
Jim Munroe, vice president of corporate affairs at Smithfield Foods, said in an interview he's not sure how county leaders came up with the estimate that two-thirds of employees will be affected. He said the number of jobs that will be affected has not yet been determined by the company.
Munroe said the Smithfield is not disclosing the percentage of the sow herd it plans to reduce in Utah, nor would he say how many hogs the company owns in the state. The company plans to move most of its operations to the Midwest, and hogs in Utah will go to a different facility.
He noted Smithfield does not plan to end its renewable energy program, through which manure from hog farms produces renewable natural gas.
Local leaders also decried the potential impact on food security throughout the state.
"I think it's bigger than us, it's bigger than Beaver County, it's bigger than Utah," County Commissioner Tammy Pearson said.
"We've got to keep these people in business ... we can't lose this business," Pearson said. "We are going to move heaven and earth to do what we've got to do to sustain this."
Contributing: Amy Joi O'Donoghue