RAEFORD — Red Springs officials say news of the closure of a major turkey-processing plant in Raeford is “sad” — and that it is sure to send a shock wave 20 miles down N.C. 211, right to the town’s Main Street, and its bottom line.
“We’re going to feel it,” Mayor John McNeill said. “I’m sure we have more than a hundred people in Red Springs who work there — not only are they going to lose their jobs, but also those who shop Red Springs.”
The announcement of the closure of House of Raeford, a plant that employs 950 people, comes on the heels of news of a $5 million expansion to Mountaire Farms Inc. in Lumber Bridge, which will make room for 90 jobs. McNeill said that while any job growth is good news, the 10-to-1 ratio is difficult to absorb.
“It’s really going to hit Red Springs hard,” said town Commissioner Eula McNeill. “… Any time that jobs are lost, that’s going to affect the economy.”
The plant announced the closure in a statement Thursday, saying it will focus on chicken production after multiple years of flat-to-declining turkey sales, and increases in corn prices and ethanol mandates have driven feed costs higher and the company’s profit margin lower. The Raeford plant will be “idled” after producing holiday turkeys this year, according to the statement. About 140 turkey growers, many of them in Robeson County, will lose a buyer.
Dave Witter, manager of corporate sustainability and communications, said he could not estimate how many affected workers live in Robeson County because of a problem with the company’s internal network that made personnel records inaccessible. He said that while it was “too early to tell” how many employees might face unemployment, the company would “obviously try its best to relocate,” rather than lay off, as many employees as possible.
“As far as what we’re doing, we’re operating a plant,” he said. “We’re not shutting down until the summer, four or five months from now.”
At around noon on weekdays, traffic on Raeford’s Central Avenue is slowed to a crawl as motorists brake for employees making their way across the street to the plant’s parking lot, where many kick off their rubber boots and spend their lunch break gathered around a friend’s vehicle, eating out of paper bags and smoking cigars. Others make their way to a nearby convenience store for a box of fried chicken.
Rebecca Lopez, of Lumber Bridge, was just beginning her daily break Friday afternoon. Lopez has spent three years as part of an assembly line that “splits necks” at the processing plant. It’s work that’s not hard, she said, but requires an adjustment period.
“It’s a bloody, bloody job,” she said. “It takes about a month to get used to it … you have to know how to sharpen a knife.”
Lopez, who has a young daughter, said her family will feel the effects if she can’t be transferred to another plant or find work elsewhere.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything, but I hope they can move me somewhere else. This is just crazy.”
Shanecia Brown makes a daily 45-minute commute to the plant from Bennettsville, S.C. Wearing a blue hairnet, she took a smoke break by the open hatch of a van full of rubber boots and full-length aprons.
“They ain’t telling us nothing yet,” she said, “but it’s sure something I don’t want.”
Forty-one-year-old Oscar Squalls, his face shielded from the afternoon sun by a hood on his blue sweatshirt, said he hoped the four years he has spent “hooking birds” at the plant would grant him “seniority” that will persuade the company to move him to a different location. A convicted felon, there aren’t many options for him to find work, he said.
“It’s a drastic situation,” he said. “I’ve got four kids, I pay child support on all of them. It’s court-ordered. I pay medical bills, insurance, all that.
“It’s an easy job, hooking birds is. It’s carefree, nobody’s standing over your back or anything — and the pay was good. Well, it still is good, let’s not talk about it like it’s in the past already.”
Abbi Overfelt works for Civitas Media as editor of The Red Springs Citizen and The St. Pauls Review.