South Dakota town embraces new immigrants vital to meat industry

Nation

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: At Dakota Provisions, a turkey processing plant in Huron South Dakota, worker Nyo Maung takes only a second-and-half to remove the tail of a turkey. With his electric knife, he completes 40 cuts a minute and 2,400 every hour.

Huron is a small city of 13,000 residents halfway between Sioux Falls and the state capital, Pierre. More than 40 turkey farms supply the plant, which distributes meat all over the U.S.

It runs like an auto factory assembly line with about a thousand workers processing 20,000 turkeys a day. That adds up to 200 million pounds of turkey meat a year. And no one is faster with his blade than Nyo Maung.

MARK HEUSTON: He cuts tails off the turkeys with a wizard knife.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Mark "Smokey" Heuston is the company's human resources director.

The foreman was saying that they've actually noticed when he's on vacation the productivity levels go down, the yields go down.

MARK HEUSTON: That's correct.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: On average, floor workers like Nyo Maung, make around 13 dollars an hour. Since the plant opened in 2005, it's been a constant struggle to find and retain enough people from South Dakota willing to work in meatpacking. Immigrants help fill the gap.

MARK HEUSTON: We're able to keep our turnover down to in the 15 and 20 percent a year range, which is four or five times less than the national average for the meatpacking plants.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Like Nyo Maung, most workers here are Karen, an ethnic minority from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Between 2005 and 2014, a U.S. resettlement program admitted 73,000 refugees from Myanmar, long governed by a military dictatorship, until last year.

Heuston began recruiting the refugees in 2007, when during a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota, a magnet for refugees from Myanmar, he met a small group of Karen people willing to move to Huron.

Nine years later, through word of mouth and family ties, what started with 3, has expanded to more than 600 Karen workers.

MARK HEUSTON: Without the Karen people, we probably would not be able to run the turkey plant.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Why not?

MARK HEUSTON: People just don't want to move to rural America. The local young people are going out to see the rest of the world. The Karen people have seen the rest of the world, and they've had enough of the rest of the world.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Where would Huron, where would Dakota Provisions be without the immigrants?

MARK HEUSTON: We'd definitely be far short of people to run the facility. The Karen come here for exactly the same reasons that our ancestors came here, and that's to be free.

Nyo maung arrived here in 2012.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Why did you decide to move to Huron as opposed to St. Paul or Indiana or another place in the United States? Why Huron?

NYO MAUNG: The reason that I chose Huron is because my relatives live here. One of my relatives or siblings, they arrived here before.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: But the Karen are only part of the story. Roughly 16 percent of the plant's workforce is from Latin America. The plants diversity has transformed Huron and surrounding Beadle county. Bringing the city's population back up to numbers not seen since 1980 while reducing the median age by five years.

BROOKE SYDOW: We were maybe one of the pioneers in our area to embrace some of the immigration.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Brooke Sydow is workforce development coordinator for the city of Huron.

BROOKE SYDOW: We want to see South Dakota grow, and we're not seeing the traditional white middle-class American come back to a rural place — it's just not happening and so, we're embracing whatever's coming our way, versus trying to bar up and say, 'We can't help you.' Let's say, 'Okay, come here, how can we help you?'

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: With 46 percent of the K-12 students being of Asian or Latino descent, "helping" means expanding the school's English as a second language program and hiring a certified ESL instructor for every grade.

The city also added more plots to this community garden believing the space would allow new and old residents to get to know one another. And the city also helps new arrivals with housing needs.

With the help of Huron's James Valley Housing group and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, Nyo Maung was able to buy this 137,000 four bedroom house with no money down.

You have decided to stay in Huron?

NYO MAUNG: Forever, always. The rest of my life. I will not go to any other places. I don't know where else to go. I'll stay here.

BROOKE SYDOW: We've always been a working-class community, and there's always been different groups of people that have come through and kind of lived and worked in the community. And with the Karen population, they fit in really well within our community. We have a huge family-based orientation. They're family-based, we're family-based, so they fit in well.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: Even though there were some minor culture clashes at first. Mark Heuston tells a story about a Karen family raising a few eyebrows after they started laying some fish out to dry in their neighbors back yard, Sydow says the town is more than willing to do what is needed to make immigrants feel welcome.

BROOKE SYDOW: If that means putting up another restaurant or if that means changing the ESL program, trying to help with community integration, that's what we're going to do.

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: You guys are open for business?

BROOKE SYDOW: We're open for business and that's what sets us apart from other communities.

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