Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Valleydale Foods in Salem will cease operations
Ultimately, 344 workers will lose their jobs as the plant phases out its production.
The cartoon pigs didn't dance Tuesday.
Valleydale Foods in Salem is closing. The pork processing plant will shut down in two phases, with the first phase beginning in late January. Ultimately, 344 workers will lose their jobs in Salem, with 208 affected by the first phase.
And the Roanoke Valley will lose another iconic local company, one whose roots in Salem reach back to 1936 and meatpacker Lorenz Neuhoff Jr.
Jay Taliaferro, Salem's assistant city manager, said "losing Valleydale is like losing a good friend." Salem also will lose about $135,000 in annual tax revenue.
Executives from Smithfield Packing and parent company Smithfield Foods, which has owned Valleydale since 1992, shared the shutdown news with workers Tuesday. They told employees that the plant's age, distance from pork suppliers and new Smithfield facilities in North Carolina, as well as estimated costs of plant upgrades, influenced their decision to close a plant described as antiquated.
Plant manager John Weist said rumors of a shutdown have circulated for months among workers. But a number of employees reacted emotionally Tuesday, he said, when they learned in small groups that those rumors had been predictive.
"Obviously, there were some long faces and some distraught features among the faces," said Weist.
The Valleydale plant produces a variety of processed meats, including bacon, bacon bits, smoked sausages, boiled and diced ham, and roast beef. Smithfield will retain the Valleydale brand. Many longtime residents of the Roanoke Valley can recall viewing Valleydale's original TV ads, which featured marching, dancing and singing pigs and the "Hooray for Valleydale" jingle. A company history reports that Neuhoff recognized early on the potential power of television advertising.
At the afternoon change of shift Tuesday, several employees whose work day had just ended said news of the pending shutdown did not come as a shock.
"For most of us, it was no surprise," said Ed Smallwood, who said he'd worked for Valleydale for more than 13 years. "We knew it was coming. We just didn't know when. They've been cutting our hours."
Smithfield said the plant has been operating at about 79 percent capacity for 26 weeks. The Salem operation was losing about $3.5 million a year, the company said, because of overhead costs.
Weist said the plant will continue its boiled ham, diced ham and bacon bits operations for a time and then close for good, probably, in July 2006.
Smallwood, whose duties include maintenance work, said he hopes to keep his job past the phase one cuts. He sounded philosophical about hearing the bad news during the heart of the holiday season.
"You do what you can and that's about all you can do," he said.
Plant electrician Joe Sparks, a former coal miner, reacted similarly when asked what he'll do when his job ends.
"Same thing I've done for the last 20 years -- find another job," Sparks said. "There's work out there if you are willing to work."
Asked about the timing of Tuesday's announcement, Weist replied, "There is never a good time to present news like this to employees. But they will be working through the holidays."
Many Valleydale workers in Salem are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 400. Union officials did not respond to a phone call seeking reaction to Tuesday's announcement.
Bernice and Bill Newcomb have lived for 60 years within hearing and aroma range of the Valleydale plant. Bernice Newcomb said occasional odors wafting by in recent years have not been unpleasant. The assaults on the senses eased long ago, she said, when the plant stopped keeping live cattle and hogs on site.
"The cows would bawl all night and the pigs would squeal," she said.
Bernice Newcomb said she and others will miss the Valleydale plant.
"I'm sorry to see them go," she said. "They hired a lot of people in Salem."
According to Valleydale history, Neuhoff moved his meatpacking business from Lynchburg to Salem in 1936, where the business first operated as Neuhoff Packing Company. In 1948, the business became Valleydale Packers. Neuhoff died in 1988 at age 82. In 1992, the Neuhoff family sold the company to Smithfield Foods.
Weist said he knows Valleydale and its iconic singing pigs have meaning for many longtime residents.
"It's not an easy thing to decide something like this," he said.