Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Chobani and Clif Bar have micropolitan south central Idaho humming

I visited Idaho's Magic Valley in 2011 on a field trip with the Rural Sociological Society's (RSS) Annual Meeting in Boise, so it was with particular interest that I read Kirk Johnson's story about Twin Falls in the New York Times this week.  Johnson reported a few days ago--in a front-page story--under the headline, "What Decline? A Rural Hub Thrives in Idaho."  In a related story, Johnson offered a more personal reminiscence of his path to report this feature on Twin Falls, from the vantage point of his own upbringing in Utah, not far to the south.

Sadly, I never got a blog post written about my RSS field trip to the Magic Valley, memorable though it was.  I did, however, upload a few of my photos for this post in the run up the RSS Annual Meeting the following year.  One of the reasons I never got a blog post written is that what I saw and heard was so controversial.  Among other things, the "family" dairy we visited (family owned, but an industrial-sized operation)--across the river from Twin Falls in Jerome--was using immigrant labor in a way that seemed, well, exploitative.  The owner of the dairy talked about "her Mexicans" and how the dairy needed them in order to keep U.S. dairy products affordable, to prevent China from becoming the source of all of our nation's milk.  The owner also told us that local white workers were unreliable but that the occasional refugee resettled to the area worked out, too; she referred in particular to a Burmese refugee working at the dairy who had proved himself hard working, reliable and competent.  Mostly, however, she lauded "her" Latinx workers as critical to her business's sustainability.  After that visit to the dairy, our group went into Twin Falls where we had lunch at a "Mexican" restaurant and where a local priest talked to us about immigration and refugee resettlement into the region.  We were also made aware of the Idaho dairy industry's push for immigration reform, especially from many in this region whose economic livelihoods were reliant on immigrant labor.  (See a related, recent story here, about Wisconsin dairies).

Johnson's story is providing an update on what has happened since I visited nearly six years ago--and the news is good.  In recent years Chobani Yogurt (2013) and Clif Bar (2015) have established manufacturing facilities in Twin Falls.  These economic splashes are among factors that have the nine-country area in south-central Idaho booming.  Both pay workers$15/hour, more than twice the state's minimum wage of $7.25.  In short, with this story Johnson is offering a contrary narrative to the dominant rural narrative--so often featured on this blog--of decline, population loss, sagging economies.  (See just one example here).

Johnson puts Twin Falls' growth in national perspective: Between 2000 and 2015, the population of Twin Falls County increased by 25%, twice as fast as the national rate.
Twin Falls, population 47,000, is a place where rows of hay and feed corn brush right up against the edge of town, but it’s also the biggest community for a hundred miles in any direction, which makes it a shopping hub. Five new hotels have opened since the end of the recession, and more than 80,000 people a day drive in to work or shop.
This is consistent with what I wrote in this recent post--about the efficiency of regional services and retail consolidation, even (or especially) amidst a largely rural region with numerous smallish towns. Indeed, Johnson writes,
In its heady growth spurt, Twin Falls is sucking the oxygen from some smaller, struggling communities farther out in the country as retailers and restaurants cluster in the center.
Johnson also speculates about the "why"--why Twin Falls is growing while many nonmetropolitan places are not (though he notes that northern Idaho and Bend, Oregon are other communities in the "rural" West that are similarly booming, for different reasons):
What went right in southern Idaho started and ended with the rich volcanic soil. With irrigation, the black dirt was splendid for growing crops, from potatoes to alfalfa, that in turn fed the dairy cows that grew up in what became known as the Magic Valley.
Idaho, Johnson reports, is the 4th largest milk producing state in the nation, following California, Wisconsin and New York.  Further 75% of that milk production is within 75 miles of Twin Falls.  That's what drew Chobani, which each day purchases up to 60 tanker trucks of milk (8000 gallons each) from area dairies.

But Johnson also gives "culture" its due in regard to Twin Falls' ascendancy:
[A]bove all else, city leaders, business owners and residents say, it’s a practical place, where the old small-town values of hardball competition shape political life. If an idea gets in the way of economic growth, it should be discarded.
He quotes the Twin Falls City Manager, Travis P. Rothweiler:
Economic development is a blood sport, and I mean that in every single way you can think of it.
And this brings me to Johnson's more personal reflections, given his familiarity with the region:
I was not prepared for Zumba classes and personal trainers at the Clif Bar company gym in Twin Falls, in the still new building the company opened last fall. It was not just jobs and economics that were changing, I immediately saw, but culture. Companies like Clif Bar, based in California and steeped in the outdoor identity of biking and health, and Chobani ... were also changing the nature of a job for their Twin Falls employees, and for workers at other companies that were being forced, through competition, to up their pay and benefits.
* * *
In reporting there on the ground, I then also saw that the old frozen-in-place southern Idaho was defrosting fast, with strains and stresses along the way.
Both of these stories are well worth reading in their entirety.  


Courtney Hatchett said...

In Johnson’s Chobani NTY article, he states that “[r]ural America, as many snapshots and studies show, might still be a place where hopes and economic momentum have stalled. But the counterexamples that can show another way and another path are out there too.” He points to the Clif and Chobani factories as these counterexamples, but I’m wondering what kind of workers these factories are attracting. They seem to bring people to the area that were previously elsewhere. If so, to what extent are these “zumba”- attending factory workers contributing to rural gentrification? Is the increase in home values pushing out the Latinx families working in the nearby dairy industry? How will that in turn affect the dairy industry that originally attracted the Chobani factory to the area? Also, are these factories creating lasting communities that will be able to fight the “brain drain” phenomena of rural areas? Or is this a short-term/ single-generation shift to rural life?

ofilbrandt said...

It is encouraging to hear not all rural areas are being drained of industry. It sounds like this town is "business friendly" and attractive to the companies because of permissions that come from its remoteness, low population, and "ruralness." I am interested to hear what will happen if it continues to grow. It seems like it is business friendly because they push out anyone that is not in line with the majority opinions, a permission that is not so free in larger cities. If the town continues to grow, will the industries leave? Second, as Courtney partially asked above, in what ways are the people that are coming into the city changing it? Where they push out the people that are already there, how does this change the make up of the city economically, politically, and socially?

Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Interesting to see Twin Falls pop up in the news again today, with this story in the Idaho Statesman.

Chobani is suing Alex Jones--yes, that Alex Jones of the false flag attacks/hype--for defaming the company and, implicitly, its founder. Note that according to this story, Chobani employs 300 refugees ... consistent with the focus on refugee resettlement I learned about when I visited in 2011.