Commentary: Surprise! Nebraska turkey plant closes its doors, again

Farm Forum

Shockingly, the turkey plant in Gibbon, Neb., has gone bankrupt. I’m being sarcastic.

Actually, it’s not shocking.

The plant first closed in 2008, citing high feed and fuel costs. Around 200 workers were immediately out of jobs. It was a big deal.

But then in 2010, as all rural communities in the Midwest hope for after a major place of employment closes, someone took a chance and borrowed $100,000 and re-opened it. The national economy, not completely turned around, was a heck of a lot better in 2010 than it was in 2008 and hope filled the air, both for Gibbon’s local economy and Nebraska’s turkey industry. But there is a reason why some businesses make it through recessions and others do not, and high costs certainly can contribute, but they’re likely not the only reasons.

The plant reported a total debt of $4.4 million with assets only totaling $2.5 million. One bill left unpaid was for $1.45 million. It was so hit-and-miss at the end that the plant apparently didn’t pay its electric bill and the electricity was shut down at the plant for a month. Not paying electricity? That’s when you know your bank balance is getting out of control, because electricity for a plant no doubt costs a lot but it’s not the biggest bill they’re getting. So just think of how many bills weren’t getting paid.

Well, I guess we know – $4.4 million worth.

Of course, it’s hard. It’s hard to see business dreams go up in smoke. It’s hard to lay off employees and contribute to the hardships in their lives and the local economy, although this time around, it was only about 50 workers, but still 50 people who are now out of work. It’s hard for the state turkey industry to lose part of its infrastructure.

But, there must have been some mismanagement somewhere. Just as with our small family farms, there can be some really rough, tough times in agriculture but not every farm goes under. It’s about adaptation and resilience and persistence and dedication, and especially about setting goals and learning from our mistakes and not doing the same thing over and over, despite it not working, because we want it to work. Wanting something to work doesn’t make something work.

In the Dirty ’30s, farmers had to learn new ways of managing cropland and grazing to reduce erosion to manage not only the huge dust storms but also to weather the drought. It doesn’t mean that the Great Depression at the same time didn’t contribute to their situation, but it was those farmers willing to stick it out and learn and grow who were able to stick it through.

In the 1980s farm crisis, a lot of farmers went out of business but not all. Around the turn of the century, a lot of hog operations went out of business but the farmers who made it through aren’t necessarily producing hogs now. They changed and adapted.

Through every drought and flood and hailstorm and bottomed-out market and economic recession, through every hard point in production agriculture, there are farms and an agribusinesses who make it out – some stronger than others – and those who don’t. The difference is in how they manage their businesses, how they make decisions, how they cope with unexpected curve balls.

In my humble opinion, while it’s awesome that the plant re-opened, it was done too soon after the first closing. The first closing wasn’t given enough due time to evaluate what happened there. It was almost assumed – of course, I can’t know for sure – that waiting for the recession to lift a little bit would be enough.

It is hard to see farms and businesses go bankrupt, but there is a reason. We should be finding ways to help these farmers and businesses make better choices, but if they don’t make it, we shouldn’t be too quick to resurrect them again without reflection and careful planning.