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Harvest Public Media reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues through a collaborative network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest and Plains.

Chicken processor invests $1.3 billion in robot workforce to eventually cut 3,000 jobs

chickenprocessing.jpg
courtesy Oxfam America
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Employees work to process chickens in a meat plant. Tyson's investments in automation will largely impact its chicken deboning operations.

Meatpacking giant Tyson Foods plans to spend $1.3 billion dollars over the next three years to automate parts of its chicken processing line.

Tyson said in an investor presentation earlier this month that the automation will cut more than 3,000 jobs in its plants through 2024, mostly deboning roles in chicken operations.

Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the automation is a sign of the times.

Robots in agriculture are catching on, after decades of automation advancements in industries like automotive manufacturing and electronics. Agriculture’s cheap labor had kept the machines at bay, but he said recent wage increases have made robots competitive with humans.

Tyson’s not the only food-sector firm bringing robots in. Acemoglu sees companies developing robots to pick fruit and package products.

“It’s the next frontier in some sense,” he said.

The important part, Acemoglu said, is that Tyson balances its investments in automation with creating new jobs for workers. Without new opportunities, his research has found that robots push low-skill employees out of the workforce and set them back financially.

Robotization and job cuts could hurt Midwest towns that rely on packers as primary employers. Although Tyson’s beef plant in Garden City, Kansas, isn’t an immediate candidate for technology aimed at poultry, the fact that it provides one of every five jobs in the county gives a sense of what economic linchpins the plants offer to smaller communities.

Some factors — like workers’ willingness to travel for work and the Midwest’s demand for manufacturing labor — will mitigate the negative effects of job losses, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist Eric Thompson.

“Still, a movement toward automation in meat could start to reverse the population gains some cities saw when plants came to town,” Thompson said. “It could accelerate the decline in population in rural America.”

To be sure, 3,000 jobs represent only 2% of Tyson’s global workforce. And the company says those are hard-to-fill roles where it’s seeing some of its most severe worker shortages.

But Thompson said the news comes with a bit of irony, two years into the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Meat workers stayed at work during the pandemic, at tremendous risk of getting sick,” he said. “The reward is automation of their jobs.”

Elizabeth Rembert joined Harvest Public Media in 2021 after time covering breaking news for Bloomberg News in New York.
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