Getting men and women to work in the kill rooms of this state's meatpacking plants is vital to the agribusiness economy that dominates Iowa, keeping it No. 1 in the nation in hog production. But the work is so brutal, repetitive, low-paying and dangerous that until recently the jobs were going begging.
"No American white man wanted those jobs," said one union official here.
The massive worker vacuum has turned Iowa into a mecca for immigrants from Latin America and refugees from the religious-ethnic wars of central Europe. Mexican bakeries and Bosnian restaurants are taking over stores left empty by recurring farm crises and the steady exodus of native Iowans.
The influx of foreign workers is the latest sign of the remarkable economic and social changes in this state, the site of the nation's first presidential caucuses on Jan. 24.
Once a nearly homogenous collection of family farmers, Iowa has diversified into a powerful manufacturing and insurance hub and a key developer of agribusiness products. In the process, the state has become much more free-trade and high-tech-oriented, and if not more Democratic, it contains a growing core of voters who do not think in traditional liberal and conservative terms.
As they campaign across the state, presidential candidates are feeling their way around this new economy, focusing almost exclusively on issues that seem tailored more to the Iowa of 1980 than the Iowa of 2000.
"When candidates come to a place like Iowa, they are somehow expecting a sense of rural isolation," said Harvey Siegelman, the state economist. "They think we are not going to be aware of what is happening on the other side of the Earth." Sixty-five percent of Iowa farmers have computers and regularly use the World Wide Web, he noted.
Vice President Gore and Bill Bradley recently went toe to toe in a debate focusing on the plight of family farmers. But family farm income, in large part because of $600 million in federal aid, is actually higher than it was a year ago.
A far more important issue, according to local politicians and economists, is providing access for farmers to the huge profits being made by the corporations buying farm products, including creating meatpacking cooperatives owned by cattle, hog and poultry farmers. The potential goes far beyond meatpacking, as food off the farm is being converted into everything from medicine to golf tees.
As Republicans debate tax cuts, economists here say a more pressing issue in this cash-rich economy is finding workers, both those willing to take on the dirty, low-skill, low-paying jobs and the bright, technology-minded young people, many of whom are leaving Iowa just as every aspect of agribusiness has become dependent on technology.
"We need more Iowans. We need younger Iowans. We need better-paid Iowans," Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) said in his State of the State speech Tuesday.
The last time there was a serious Democratic presidential battle here, in 1988, Iowa was a very different state, emerging from a recession substantially more severe than that in the rest of the nation.
The Federal Reserve's tight monetary policy to choke off inflation worked to choke off agriculture and industrial machinery production, each of which is dependent on low interest rates and low capital costs. Those policies were reinforced by a surging dollar that raised the export cost of farm and manufactured goods to noncompetitive levels. "Mountains of grain piled up with no room in grain elevators," Siegelman said. "We had probably the worst economy since the Great Depression."
At the end of the 1980s and the start of the '90s, Iowa began to emerge from the economic deep freeze. Overseas markets opened up, not only in Europe and Asia, but also in Mexico, which has become one of the state's major trading partners.
Now, Iowa is on the leading edge of global economic activity. Not only has Iowa begun to absorb Latinos, Laotians, Sudanese and Bosnians, but the hogs they slaughter and pack get sent to Europe, Latin America and Asia with other exports crucial to the state's well-being.
All the pork from the IBP Inc. plant in Ottumwa is shipped to Japan, and Japanese inspectors oversee the cutting process. International joint ventures are springing up in once isolated communities. USA Toshoku, a collaboration between two Iowa companies, FTE Genetics and Bushman Organic Marketing, and Toshoku Co. of Japan, is preparing to build a $21.6 million plant to micro-mill soybeans in Oskaloosa.
Iowa is an open-market state, dependent on immigrant workers to keep up production when unemployment has dropped to 2.1 percent, a beneficiary of foreign investment and, most important, an exporter of food, machines, furniture and financial services. "We can compete effectively," Vilsack said. "We are by far the most efficient farming operation in the world."
As the revolution in high technology penetrates everything from communications to home building to turkey farming to transportation, Iowa exports go far beyond packaged meats and simple farm products. The state's burgeoning manufacturing economy ships air conditioners, recreational vehicles, fireplaces and tractors to Mexico, more goods than to France or Britain, making Iowa one of the major beneficiaries of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The transformation of Iowa's economy is reflected not only in the benefits, but also in substantial costs that some native Iowans are resisting. In less than a decade, for instance, the schools in meatpacking towns have had to absorb large numbers of students whose first, and often only, language is Spanish or Serbo-Croatian. Teachers fluent in these languages have been brought in, at no small cost.
The immigration has provided Iowa with men and women willing to work long and hard at jobs spurned by native residents. New families, according to conservatives and liberals alike, often have a strong commitment to children and traditional values.
At the same time, however, Mexican-manufactured methamphetamine, a cheap, highly addictive narcotic, has moved in large volumes into Iowa, especially into the meatpacking towns, where drug arrest rates run 30 to 40 percent higher than in comparable communities. In addition, critics of the new immigration complain of welfare costs, disorderly conduct, drinking and fights, especially among young single men on their own in Iowa's towns and cities.
The clash of cultures has created a new wedge issue in Iowa politics, provoking conflicts similar to earlier ones in U.S. history over immigration and race. The issue has divided many Iowa communities and the state legislature.
State Rep. Mike Cormack (R) of Fort Dodge, sponsor of legislation mandating English as the state's official language, said he repeatedly hears from his constituents, "Don't let Fort Dodge become another Storm Lake," referring to another town in the state where large numbers of Latino immigrants have taken jobs in meatpacking.
The groups that have taken on some of the heaviest burdens growing out of Iowa's entry into the global economy are the Latinos and Bosnians lured to the state by IBP, Swift, Exell and other meatpackers.
"Nobody wants to work on a kill floor," said State Rep. David Lord (R) of Perry, the site of an IBP hog plant. He then described the gory process of slaughtering hogs.
For more and more of the Latinos and Bosnians, however, the kill floors of meatpacking plants are way stations, the first step into the new American economy. Here and in nearby Waterloo, where more than 3,000 Bosnians have settled, a new entrepreneurial class is emerging, small immigrant businesses catering to the newcomers, along with the growing employment of immigrants in better paid, more highly skilled work.
THE IOWA WORKER
Median household income
Where they work
(number of employees)
Retail trade: 256,200
Finance, insurance, real estate: 81,600
Wholesale trade: 79,200
Transportation, public utilities: 62,000
SOURCE: Iowa Department of Economic Development
Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination will debate from 2 to 3:30 p.m. today in Johnston, Iowa. CNN, Fox News Channel and C-SPAN plan live coverage.
CAPTION: Raul Avalos of Marshalltown, Iowa, waves a sign reading "Don't Panic, We Are Only Hispanic" at the Marshall County Courthouse last March as he and other Latinos protest legislation to make English the state's official language.