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50 years and counting: JBS plant continues to make strong impact on local economy

This photo of Worthington’s JBS plant was taken from the air in September 2012. The facility opened as an Armour plant in October 1964 and marked 50 years in the community this fall. (Brian Korthals/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Fifty years ago this fall, the facility now known as this city’s JBS plant began operations.

There sure have been a lot of changes since Oct. 2-3, 1964, when Worthington’s new Armour plant hosted an open house for community residents. The event was billed in the Daily Globe as the only opportunity for the general plant to take a look inside Armour’s operations.

Fifty years later, JBS isn’t nearly as private about its business.

“We’re trying to be more transparent with the community so people don’t get the wrong ideas about us,” explained Brad Hellinga, vice president and general manager at JBS Worthington. “We’ve been trying to get groups in here, like the Chamber of Commerce as well as high school classes and college classes, and FFA-type things. People tend to think the worst if they don’t know the reality of it.”

Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Papp is also complimentary of JBS’ outreach efforts.

“JBS, specifically, has been very easy to work with,” Papp said. “I personally have been through the plant four or five times with different groups.

“All of us in agriculture, whether we grow the crops or care for the animals — whatever our role is — transparency is very important to today’s consumers,” he added. “Whether it’s knowing the farmer that grew it or the person that processed it or harvested it, we all want agriculture to be as transparent and open as possible.”

The reality at JBS is that while some aspects of hog production aren’t terribly different from what they were 50 years ago, there has also been plenty of change.

“A lot of technology has come on,” said Hellinga, adding that the plant also began double-shifting in the late 1980s, which also was a significant boon to production. “Those advances, along with other factors, have allowed us to go from where we then — in terms of hogs per day — to what we’re doing now.”

Armour planned to harvest in the neighborhood of 5,000 hogs a day when it opened in 1964. Today, JBS harvests an average of 20,800 hogs a day, and the results of that effort have ramifications far beyond the southwest Minnesota prairie.

“The 1964 paper (a special section about Armour’s opening) references sending a lot of the products to the east on rail cars filled with ice,” Hellinga said. “Now, shipping to the east means China and Japan.”

And there’s a lot more than traditional pork products being shipped. For instance, mucosa, which is found inside the small intestines of a hog, is an ingredient in the blood-thinning drug Heparin. A 48,000-pound tanker of mucosa— a result of 12 hours of production — yields about 22 pounds of Heparin for the pharmaceutical companies that buy it from JBS. The small intestines are then cleaned, salted and sent to China for further processing into casings.

Providing an economic stimulus

When Armour opened in Worthington in 1964, the facility employed 375 workers with a total annual payroll of $2 million. Fast-forward 50 years, and those figures are 2,200 employees and a $100 million payroll.

“The City of Worthington has been very fortunate to have this industry in our community,” Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darlene Macklin said of JBS. “They have provided high employment, contributed to our tax base, been generous to community events with donations and continue to have successful growth by increasing their operation here in Worthington. The Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce congratulates them on their 50 years in business.”

The economic impact JBS has in Worthington and the surrounding area has continued to grow since Hellinga first joined the company back in 1990.

“When I started here, it was 15,600 head per day,” Hellinga recalled. “One big thing we added was quick chill, which allows us to cut some of the hogs the same day as we harvest them. Beforehand, we had to hold them all into coolers before we cut them. Now, we’ve increased our ability to harvest more hogs in a single day.

“Also, back when I started in 1990, most of the product was paper-wrapped, and we made three or four kinds of bone-in loins and a couple of kinds of boneless loins,” Hellinga continued. “Now we make all kinds of products for the different customers we have — we have a diverse product profile.”

One of those customers is Wakefield Pork Inc. of Gaylord.

“JBS’s presence in Worthington has made the town and surrounding area a very attractive environment for Wakefield Pork to operate in,” Wakefield Pork Director of Logistics Lincoln Langhorst said. “The steady growth that Wakefield Pork has made over the last 25 years would not be possible without JBS being present in the community of Worthington.

“Hundreds of area family farms that supply JBS is noticed firsthand,” he continued. “The unnoticed benefits of JBS presence are the supporting roles like field staff, local feed mills, livestock transporters, veterinarians, truck wash, etc. — the ripple effect of JBS’s presence is quite phenomenal to the area, and we are very thankful for that.”

The connections JBS has with these hog producers and many others helps Minnesota a national leader in hog production. Iowa remains “far and away” the first in the nation in that department — and JBS, naturally, works with some Iowa producers, but Minnesota and specifically Nobles County are plenty busy with pigs.

“In 1964, Nobles County was one of the top 10 counties in the nation,” Hellinga said. “I’m not sure about today ... but I imagine it still ranks high.”

And, as a result of those hogs, there are plenty around the region who benefit.

“When you talk about truckers and hog producers and people outside the plant that rely on us for their jobs, we do have a big impact,” he said. “You think about all the contractors — from the cafeteria to the cleanup crew to the service that hauls our trailers in and out, there’s a lot.”

Smith Trucking Inc. of Worthington is one of the many businesses that has flourished thanks to JBS.

“The presence of JBS and previous owners of the plant have been a huge part of our success and growth over the past 40 years,” Smith Trucking Vice President/General Manager Mike Smith said. “JBS is one of our top three customers and since they purchased the business from Swift several years ago, I would say that it’s been managed better than it ever has been.

“When we moved to Worthington in March of 2000, we had 19 trucks,” Smith continued. “Today we have just about 120 trucks, and JBS has been a key part of that growth. It’s exciting to see the way they continue to upgrade the facility here in Worthington and expand. We think it show their commitment to Worthington and the region for the long term.”

The mere existence of JBS Worthington creates another 15,000 jobs in the region, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Looking toward the future

JBS plans on continuing its pattern of growth, as Hellinga noted that additions involving shipping and product storage are planned eventually. The company makes a significant capital investment each year, he added. The plant’s casings building, for example, represented an investment of several million dollars.

Meanwhile, JBS is finding new ways to grow its business as well as the community as a whole. It recently teamed up with Minnesota West Community and Technical College to launch an industrial technology program.

“We were the catalyst of that whole thing getting started,” Hellinga said. “We asked the college to get it started, and we offered $150,000 worth of scholarships to kick off the program and to help sustain it for the next year.”

Minnesota West was also recently named as a finalist for a significant federal grant.

“One of the biggest reasons they (Minnesota West) ended up getting this million-dollar grant was because of us creating this program together and JBS providing the money for scholarships that it did,” Hellinga said.

“The JBS Worthington Plant has been a long-term partner with Minnesota West Community and Technical College for advancing the education and skills of their workforce and community,” said Dawn Regnier, director of customized training services at Minnesota West. “The new Industrial Technology degree program is an excellent example of the partnership.

“JBS is one of many food processors and manufacturers throughout southwest Minnesota that depends on industrial machines as an integral component of their daily operations,” Regnier continued. “The maintenance of the machines and equipment is critical for the operation in order to eliminate the potential for machine downtime. “At a time when technology and machine automations are heavily utilized in manufacturing production, there is a serious shortage of skilled machine maintenance technicians.”

As a result, Regnier explained, JBS partnered with Minnesota West and was awarded a Minnesota Job Skills Partnership grant to support the development of the curriculum and training program specifically for industrial maintenance technicians to be offered at Minnesota West. The result has been the start of the new Industrial Technology degree program.

“To further support the program, JBS is offering scholarships and part-time employment opportunities for students interested in pursuing the college degree and a career in the high demand field as an Industrial Maintenance Technician,” Regnier said. “The new Industrial Technology degree is a triple win opportunity for employers, the college and individuals seeking a career in a high-demand arena.”

Additionally, JBS employees continue to contribute significantly to their community through their donations to the United Way of Nobles County, with those gifts heavily incentivized by the company through various prizes and rewards. In 2013, the company gave a total of $100,000 to the organization.

A JBS free clinic is also in the works, which will allow JBS workers to get free care at Sanford’s Worthington clinic during its regular hours and through acute care during after-hours.

With that kind of benefit, it seems likely that employee turnover at the JBS Worthington plant will continue to be low. Turnover came in 19 percent last year, a number Hellinga said is impressive for the industry.

“That’s the lowest of all the JBS plants across our more than 40 locations,” he said.

Hellinga is optimistic that JBS — and the overall impact it makes it in the community — will only continue to become more positive and stronger.

“We are continuing to work with people in Worthington and across the region to make our community a better place,” Hellinga said. “We’ve been here 50 years, and we plan on being around for a long time yet.”

Daily Globe Managing Editor Ryan McGaughey may be reached at 376-7320.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

(507) 376-7320
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