Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig visits Iowa Premium Beef

T-R PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY From left to right, Iowa Premium Beef General Manager Jon Surman, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Republican State Rep. Derek Wulf engage in a conversation outside of the plant in Tama on Friday morning. Surman led Naig and Wulf on a tour of the facility, which employs around 830 workers.

TAMA — Flanked by Rep. Derek Wulf (R-Hudson), Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, a fellow Republican, took a tour of the Iowa Premium Beef plant in Tama with General Manager Jon Surman last Friday morning and learned more about successes and challenges at the facility, which currently employs around 830 workers.

While the tour itself was closed to the media, Naig, Wulf and Surman were available to answer questions afterward, and Naig noted that it had been several years since he’d visited the plant.

“It was nice to see some of the improvements and the investments that have been made by Iowa Premium Beef here, and, you know, I really wanted to check up on a couple things — one, the state of the overall beef marketplace. Certainly, we’re hearing (that) cattle numbers are actually down and what that can mean, though, is a better market,” he said. “But I’m always curious about, what about expansions? We talked a little bit about that. There had been some plans to do that. The marketplace is causing them to delay that, but really, this is poised for expansion, and we know the cattle are here. The quality cattle are here, and that’ll come at some time.”

As Naig referenced, plans were previously announced for a massive expansion north of the current plant that would add nearly 400 more jobs, but that project was placed on hold in the summer of 2022 due to surging construction costs. Surman said the company is still waiting for the cattle cycle to “come back the other way” before proceeding, and concerns about the price tag of the expansion are still lingering.

“It’s still hard to justify the payback on it with the costs where they are. We have two big plants (in Kansas) that they’re working through some improvements on, and then it’ll be our turn after that,” Surman said.

He added that they are currently working on some smaller expansions and improvements at the existing plant but trying to avoid “getting too carried away” to jeopardize the intended plans for a new facility down the road.

“We’re doing what makes sense here to improve our cost and our efficiency for our near term future, and long term, the plan is still to, hopefully, one day build up there,” Surman said.

Maintaining a strong workforce and staffing levels has been a major challenge, especially for large, labor intensive employers like Iowa Premium, but Naig was impressed with what he saw on Friday.

“There are issues around childcare, daycare, housing, all those types of things… Those are all things that, especially, rural communities are challenged with, training, just flat out, we need more Iowans,” he said. “So are we an attractive place for folks to come? And then matching those folks up with good employers.”

In light of the announced closure of the Tyson processing plant in Perry, Surman said Iowa Premium representatives have visited the community and spoken to affected employees about the possibility of coming over, but the prospect of moving nearly 100 miles can be a difficult sell.

“Fortunately, we don’t need a lot of people. We get about 100 applicants a week and we’re only hiring five or six (people) a week because we are crewed up. People see it. They understand that if they leave, it’s gonna be harder to get on,” Surman said. “We’ve seen an improvement in turnover because of that, and people know how hard it is to go out and find (a better job). We start at $22. You can make something close, but you’re gonna be in a bigger city. It’s gonna have higher costs, so I think they like the slow environment of Tama-Toledo and good pay.”

As it stands now, about 30 percent of the company’s workforce resides within the Tama and Toledo communities, which is up about 10 percent from five years ago, while 35 percent commute from Cedar Rapids, 20 percent come from Marshalltown and the remaining 15 percent come from as far as Grinnell, Waterloo, Ankeny and Iowa City.

From a legislative standpoint, Rep. Wulf said the Iowa House and Senate continue to work on bolstering rural development and encouraging people to move to areas outside of the state’s primary urban centers.

“We’ve ran several bills on rural development this year, and we’ll continue to make a push to get the investment out of those 12 most populous counties and out into rural areas to keep these places growing,” he said.

Naig touted Iowa’s low cost of living and high national ranking for opportunity as key factors in attracting more residents to live here, and before the interview concluded, Surman made a plea for more housing to be constructed in the Tama-Toledo area to accommodate the plans for future growth.

“That’s what our community needs to understand is that 70 percent of our people are coming here to work and then taking their money to other communities to spend and grow those communities,” he said. “And if we had the housing available, then they could be here. The housing, the schools, the school has to follow housing too, otherwise their children won’t have anywhere to go.”


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