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As Smithfield plant manager José Pabón opened the door leading 20 agribusiness leaders into a cooler, the smoky brown color of nearly a million pounds of raw pork bellies appeared through the fog.
The chilled room is at least the dimension of a basketball court or two.
Thousands of pork bellies hung on “trees” as they waited to be pressed, sliced, packaged, labeled and shipped.
Smithfield’s Wilson bacon plant is the largest for the company and the largest in the world by volume of bacon produced. The plant is capable of producing 150 million pounds of bacon annually.
“We’ve got bacon in every Walmart and Sam’s Club across the country,” Pabón said. “We’re coast to coast.”
Bacon is one of the most sought after parts of the pig.
“Our bacon business is blooming,” Pabón said. “Wilson is growing. There is a lot of momentum in Wilson, and Smithfield is proud to be a leading contributor to that growth.”
Smithfield is not the first company to operate the plant in Wilson.
According to Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council trade group, the Wilson meat-packing plant was dedicated 60 years ago on April 18, 1959.
Gov. Luther Hodges came to Wilson to help break ground for the plant on Feb. 20, 1958, and sank his feet in fresh concrete to mark the occasion.
Hodges said the plant could not have come at a better time in light of 1957’s disastrous tobacco losses of $38 million in six surrounding counties with Wilson’s loss alone being $4 million.
Curliss said there was rejoicing about the Swift Co.’s decision to build the plant.
“The decision to locate here was a tremendous celebration, and the articulation by the business community in Wilson all the way up to the governor of North Carolina was about the importance of this plant, not just for the jobs in the plant, but because it would source its material from the surrounding area, livestock,” Curliss said. “Those farmers are purchasing grain from other farmers, so the economic extension of this facility is very, very important for Wilson for the labor that it provides in the plant, but is very important for all of eastern North Carolina because it sources its material from 30 or 40 counties that are touched by this plant. So that was the vision. That was the dream and it has also been the reality.”
Smithfield purchased the plant on Wilco Boulevard from John Morrell in 1992. The company began slicing bacon in 1997.
Smithfield has invested $19 million on facility and equipment upgrades since 1998.
Currently, the plant has 124,000 square feet of production space.
“Some people may see a bunch of metal and bricks and things like that. What I see is a cathedral,” Curliss said. “Every cathedral needs a good bishop, and José is a good bishop. He is a rock star.”
investment in employees
Pabón, a native of Puerto Rico, has run the Wilson plant for the last seven years.
The plant has 607 employees plus 42 workers in management. Some 70% of the employees live in Wilson.
The plant has two shifts for production each day with a third shift, overnight, just to clean up and prepare for the next day of production.
“We have a great relationships with all of the folks in the facility, and that really helps get the buy-in of everybody that at the end of the day, we are here to supply and support our families, but we don’t want to get hurt,” Pabón said. “We always tell our people: No one will love you more than you will love yourself. They come in here and take advantage of the nice wages, the off-the-charts benefits, and we want them to go back to their families in a safe manner. We truly care about our people.”
The employees, who start at an hourly wage of $13.50, get a bump up in pay in 90 days. Each employee has benefits, a pension plan and a 401(k) retirement plan.
“You have got to invest back into them. They are the ones making it happen,” Pabón said.
The plant produces many popular bacon brands like Smithfield and Gwaltney, as well as private-label bacon for retailers from across the country.
Pabón said getting to the inside of the plant “is like going to a museum.”
Ray Starling, general counsel for the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, was among those on the tour.
“We have got some threats to this industry at the farm level, and I think a lot of people don’t think about the way those threats actually trickle up to the rest of the industry. So if you sat here in the morning and you watch those employees walk into the plant and watched them in the afternoon walk back out, those are the 600 folks whose careers, whose families, whose financial fortitude are at risk because folks are suing pig farmers because of odors.” Starling said. “So for me, that’s the big takeaway, seeing these employees that are happy to be here, that feel blessed to have these jobs and these careers and what this plant would mean economically to this community if it were to go away. It’s mind-boggling. It’s humbling, really.”
Norman Harrell, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, took several of his agents to see the plant.
“The thing that struck me is that you could really see the economic impact that this plant has on Wilson and North Carolina and the whole country, employing 600-plus people here, and the culture they have adapted here with safety first is really impressive and when José shared the amount of volume of bacon that they are sending out, it is really helping to feed the United States,” Harrell said.
“Like all Smithfield facilities, the safety and quality of our products is fundamental to our success as a company,” Pabón said in a prepared statement after the tour. “Food safety is really about the employees who live and breathe it every day on the production lines. Employee safety is one of our core values, and we have out-performed the industry average for injury rates for years. We are proud of our strong safety culture and consistently seek opportunities for continuous improvement.”
In 2018, the plant earned the Good Food Responsibility President’s Award for outstanding health and safety management.
Signs all over the plant say “Safety is the No. 1 ingredient in makin’ bacon.”
On the date of the tour, the plant had been 231 days without a reportable accident.
The goal, Pabón said, is to go a whole year accident free.
Signifying a further commitment to Wilson, the Smithfield brand has cropped up in another prominent spot in Wilson, the former Purina plant on U.S. 301.
“Earlier this year, Smithfield Grain moved into the facility previously occupied by Southeastern Grain Company in Wilson,” Lisa Martin, senior communications manager for Smithfield, said in an email. “This feed mill historically manufactured components of the company’s hog feed, and will continue to do so.”
To learn about available jobs at Smithfield Grain, visit www.smithfieldfoods.com/careers and enter “Wilson” in the keyword search.