Drought Takes Its Toll on a Texas Business, a Town and Its Families
By MANNY FERNANDEZ
PLAINVIEW, Tex. — After two years of drought, people are starting to leave this parched West Texas town.
The lack of significant rainfall has slowed the rush of cattle that came to the largest employer here, a beef processing plant that employed 2,300 people in a town of 22,343. When the plant shut this month, it took with it an annual payroll of $15.5 million.
The closing has challenged families who had worked at the plant off Interstate 27 for generations. Sons and daughters stood alongside their fathers and mothers, husbands next to wives. Many are Mexican-Americans whose families have long called Texas home. They spent decades rising into the middle class on an average hourly pay of $14.27 and becoming highly skilled at the grisly process of turning slaughtered cattle into beef products, though many lacked high school diplomas. Their Spanish had a Texas twang, and they formed the blue-collar heart of a windswept town almost 50 miles from Lubbock.
Now those families have been fractured as some relatives stay in Plainview and others leave. Dozens of former plant workers have already moved, finding new jobs with the plant’s owner, Cargill, or other companies outside Plainview or outside the state, many pulling their children out of the town’s 12 public schools. When workers receive their last paychecks in three weeks, the question is whether they will stick around. And then, the more existential question, can the town survive without those who leave?
The drought — the third-worst in Texas since 1895 — has dried up pastures and increased the costs of hay and feed, forcing some ranchers to sell off their herds to reduce expenses.
Cargill executives said they were idling the plant and not permanently closing it, and it could reopen if the drought breaks and the cattle herd rebounds, a process that would take years.
Other towns and cities in Texas have been affected by the drought, including those limiting residential water usage. But none have been as hurt on such a widespread, and traumatic, scale as Plainview. Nine days after the plant closed on Feb. 1, a 16-year-old girl attempted suicide, after her mother, a former plant worker, told her they might move. The girl swallowed 34 sleeping pills because she did not want to leave her boyfriend, according to the police report.