Cosmopolitan indeed is the sight-seeing throng that surges through the entrances of the Chicago Stock Yards. Ruddy-faced Germans jostle globe-trotting Englishmen, and the Japanese tourist, invariably armed with a camera, is familiar figure. Every state in the union, as well as almost every country on the globe, contributes its quota to the tide of humanity that ebbs and flows here with unfailing regularity, for the world-famed livestock market enjoys unique distinction.John O’Brien’s, Through the Chicago Stock Yards: A Handy Guide to the Great Packing Industry
John O’Brien’s 1907 guidebook, Through the Chicago Stock Yards: A Handy Guide to the Great Packing Industry captured the interest of a global audience in the varied activities that took place on a 475-acre expanse of land in the midst of a bustling, teeming metropolis. O’Brien goes on to compare the yards to such American wonders as Niagara Falls and the Rocky Mountains. Referred to as “Chicago’s Pride,” the stockyards stood as the city’s leading tourist attraction for decades.
Today, in contrast, the average American consumer is sheltered from the meat production process. The industrial transformation of agriculture — which was ironically aided by the Chicago meatpackers of the early 20th century — led to the relative invisibility of American farming and a greatly diminished agricultural literacy for much of the non-farming public. In hindsight then, the window into rural industry that stock yard tourism afforded was truly unique.
The Union Stock Yard and Transit Company of Chicago opened for business on Christmas Day, 1865. From the beginning, efficiency and speed were the goal. They drew inspiration from the city of Cincinnati (and soon displaced that city’s reputation as the nation’s Porkopolis) with the implementation of the disassembly line. By the early 20th century, other than the steel mills of the Rust Belt, the meat packing factories of Chicago were America’s largest.
There was also no going back from the innovation of the disassembly line in all its efficiency. Throughout the 20th century, industrial food production systems became commonplace as farms became fewer in number and larger in size, the nation became more urban, and Americans grew less agriculturally literate. As they did, the meatpacking industry consolidated and decentralized. Smaller companies went out of business. Larger companies left big cities behind, including Chicago. The once celebrated Chicago Stockyards closed in 1971. As the business of meatpacking evolved, packing companies moved to rural communities which were less dependent on union labor than cities and closer to the farms and livestock that supplied them.
The move then that meatpacking made to rural America has led to a cascade of different effects. In towns like Garden City, Kansas, meatpacking eventually led to prosperity, population growth, and business development when it welcomed a Tyson plant in 1980. A similar story has played out in the community of Worthington, Minnesota, home of a JBS pork plant, and considered one of the most rapidly diversifying regions of the state. However, as these plants grew their operations and attracted more workers in the 1990s and early 2000s, public sentiment concerning the safety of America’s food supply resulted in a profound questioning of conventional agricultural methods which extended to meat processing. Critiques of modern meatpacking went mainstream, most notably with books and articles by Erick Schlosser and Michael Pollan. While such critiques likely didn’t gain much traction in communities like Garden City or Worthington, they did contribute to a broader national awareness of issues like animal welfare in industrial agriculture and problematic labor conditions in the meatpacking industry. A small but intriguing DIY animal slaughter movement even sprouted up mid-2000s, its niche coastal popularity dutifully covered by The New York Times.
Then the pandemic hit in 2020. Meatpacking plants became ground zero for the transmission of Covid-19. Communities like Worthington, Minnesota, and Waterloo, Iowa (home of the nation’s largest pork processing plant) were devastated by the disease as workers in shoulder-to-shoulder contact brought Covid-19 home to their families. Buckling under the pressure from local officials and public health authorities, the Waterloo plant shut down for time. And it was a similar story for packing plants across rural America. Aside from the many public health issues raised by unmitigated spread of the virus in these meatpacking communities, the pandemic also resulted in an enhanced scrutiny of the nation’s “Big Four” meatpackers, Cargill, JBS, National Beef, and Tyson as plant shutdowns led to unanticipated supply chain disruptions.
In the face of all this upheaval in the nation’s food supply, the American Rescue Plan provided for $1 billion in federal grants to strengthen local, independently owned meat processers, which ultimately represents an intriguing inversion of the late 19th century fascination with industrial meat production. One such beneficiary was Lindsey Fulton Loken in the small town of Wanamingo, Minnesota. Loken bought a small-town butcher shop in 2014 after the longtime owner passed away, renaming it Blondie’s Butcher Shop. All the meat processed there comes from farms that are within a 30-mile radius of the business. She witnessed firsthand how it grew faster than she could have ever imagined, while also suffering from significant challenges as demand skyrocketed. Loken has also become an ambassador for her profession, routinely giving demonstrations on the art and science of meat to an enduringly curious public. 100 years ago, the great spectacle and sheer scale of the Chicago Stockyards represented for many visitors the limitless potential of American enterprise – until it became clear that profits for the meat packers outweighed their concern for worker and consumer safety. Today, as more consumers learn about industrial agricultural production methods, and again demand transparency, knowledge is a powerful tool for provoking change. As we emerge from the pandemic, our nation is in an especially dynamic era of heightened awareness and interest in food and agricultural issues. Producers and consumers hold the power to reimagine the American public’s relationship to animals, agriculture, and food as we consider the twin forces of technological progress and artisanship on an evolving nation of meat eaters.
Anna Thompson Hajdik is a senior lecturer at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater in the Languages and Literatures department. Her rural background and continued interest in agriculture informs her research and writing, as well as her “extracurriculars,” including serving as vice president of the Wisconsin Dairy Goat Association.