After 50 years of slaughtering, the scalding pit at the J. Lynn Cornwell Company is cold and the refrigeration rooms are warm. The Cornwell family business, Purcellville's largest employer, has butchered its last hog.
The business was big enough to have employed 100 people, but too small to compete with corporate giants as the food industry becomes more concentrated and government regulations more costly.
Cornwell, this town's largest employer until last March, is a family corporation started in 1927 by J. Lynn Cornwell and run since his death in 1959 by his sons J. Lynn Jr., 52, and Brewster, 51.
Slaughtering is, Lynn Cornwell said, "a cut-throat business" for both pigs and people. "Ten or 15 companies have gone bankrupt in the past few years. We chose to close before we went bankrupt," he said.
It is also a complex business. A commodity news ticker givers minute-by-minute changes in meat prices in Brewster's office and the end products range from carcasses and chitterlings to insulin and heparin, an anticoagulant. The Cornwell company has its own water supply, its own sewage treatment plant, its own fleet of regrigerated trailers and an annual payroll over $1 million.
Yet it was "a mom and pop store in the meat business," according to Lynn, a tall, elegant graduate of the Virginia Military Institute.
Lynn and Brewster, a William and Mary graduate who is also well over six feet, spent their mornings studying orders and prices and buyings live hogs over the telephone mostly from the Midwest.
The hogs, as many as 2,200 of them a day, generally started arriving by truck after midnight and into the dawn. By the next dawn their car-casses were on the way to Boston, New York or other destinations.
In between, the hogs were first lowered into a carbon dioxide pit where they lost consciousness, then hoisted by their hind legs and stuck in the throat. After bleeding, they were scalded and scorched to remove hair, and their heads were cut off, and split open as they move along a conveyor where three federal government inspectors stood checking the carcass, viscera, and glands of the animal.
The hog's pancreas was saved for the manufacturer of insulin, the lining of the small intestine for heparin, blood and edible grease for cattle feed, inedible grease for soap, and other parts for soul food and sausage.
The carcasses were chilled in lockers and loaded into Cornwell's 14 refrigerator trailers fro shipment.
That was until last March 21. Then Cornwell's biggest customer called and gave three days' notice that it would take no more carcasses. On the 25th, with 60 per cent of the business gone, the plant shut down. Seventy-five workers were laid off, and the Cornwell brothers began an unsuccessful search for new customers. Two weeks ago they decided to shut down permanently.
Cornwell had had its best year in 1970, but profits had declined steadily since. The brothers refused to reveal their business's finances but said that three years ago the company went into the red and never came out.
"The small family-owned business just can't compete," said Lynn. "We're seeing the centralization of the food chain into larger, more captalized hands with bigger clout."
"Small companies with limited resources just can't meet the high cost of strict federal standards, given the very small margin the food industry works on," Lynn said.
Brewster cited a huge Midwest slaughterhouse that had $285 million in annual sales and a profit under $500,000. "If General Motors had done that they would have fired every executive they had," Brewster said.
"Over the last four years we spent $400,000 or $500,000 on federal compliance. That's a lot of money for a little company," Lynn said. "When we absorb those sorts of costs our unit costs rise out of proportion."
"We have a $25,000 ceiling on our main floor, a porcelain coated asbestos sheet. We had to shut down twice and take all the moving rails down. There were solid wood beams, but the government is afraid of overhead contamination. The sheet is better, but the danger of contamination was negligible," Lynn said.
The brothers don't deny that the steps required by the government have beneficial effects. They do question the cost of the benefits.
"Twenty-five to 40 per cent of the companies in this industry have gone out of business in recent years," Lynn said, and at least three were customers of Cornwell who went bankrupt, leaving behind unpaid bills of several hundred thousand.
Product liability insurance jumped from several hundred dollars a year to $9,000: labor costs have risen steadily; and property taxes have gone up more than 50 per cent in two years; energy costs have risen dramatically since the 1973 oil embargo; gasoline prices have increased transport costs; the sale of wheat to the Russians raised feed and livestock prices and eventually led last year to the lowest port production in the United States in 40 years, they said.
"It seems like the ones surviving are in all phases of the business - they take the raw product and market the final product to the consumer," Lynn said. "We considered that, but it takes massive capital and expertise we don't have."
Summer is a dead season for pork sales and Cornwell shut down for four months a year ago, then reopened last August.
"We had more than we could do last fall - 2,000 to 2,200 head a day, but we were still in the red," Lynn said.
So, after 30 years in the hob business, the brothers decided to shut down.
"I think we'd like to sell or lease the building to someone who could bring in employment. Or start an unrelated business," Lynn said.
"The trend seems to be toward vertical integration," he said. "The big get bigger and the small get out."