When Sara Lee Corp. signaled it would cease turkey-slaughter operations at its Bil Mar Foods plant, the livelihoods of hundreds of people were placed in doubt. Besides the 350 Bil Mar employees involved in slaughter, area turkey farmers and their 200 employees began scanning the classified ads for business opportunities and help-wanted listings.
"It would have been a big blow to us to have had to lay off our workers, both for us personally and for them," reflects Harley Sietsema of Allendale, Mich., one of the organizers of the Michigan Turkey Producers Cooperative. Some of the family farms had raised turkeys since the early 1900s, and the Bil Mar shutdown appeared to signal an end to a way of life.
A few Bil Mar suppliers switched to broiler production or other pursuits, but most cast their lots together to see if building their own processing facility was a viable option. "We exercised some short-term options to maintain our farm workforces, but we had no long-term options at first," says Sietsema, who raises 1.25 million turkeys a year. Short-term contracts to supply West Liberty Foods in Iowa and Farbest Foods in southern Indiana enabled the farmers to maintain their workforce in 1999, "but we were financially spinning our wheels," he says.
Turkey production plunged by almost 2 million birds statewide that year while the Michigan Turkey Producers plant was being designed and built. Production now has returned to normal, and laid-off Bil Mar workers make up a third of the new plant's workforce, including most of the supervisors and virtually all of the management team
"We were able to retain a number of key people who knew where the markets were, the people to call and how to slaughter and cut up turkeys," Sietsema concludes. "There could have been a lot of bitterness over the shutdown, but the situation has turned out to our advantage."