After our first pass through Dodge City two weeks ago, I reported that the mood there, in a part of the United States that is very heavily affected by Latino immigration, was at strong variance with the “build a wall” / “take our country back” tone of Donald Trump’s campaign.
The contrast with Trump’s rhetoric was significant since this is a politically conservative area in a politically conservative state, which Trump is almost certain to carry this fall. Over the past 30-plus years, the ethnic makeup of southwestern Kansas has shifted from majority white to majority Latino—and the Latino group mainly means Mexicans. This is especially so in the “triangle” of Kansas cities that dominate the meat-packing and feedlot industry: Dodge City and Garden City (which we visited), and Liberal (which we did not).
Dodge City had long had an ethnically-mixed population, because of workers who arrived during its cattle-drive and railroad heydays in the late 1800s and afterward. But its modern makeup began changing when the big packing houses started arriving in in the early 1980s. The two major operations that dominate Dodge City’s economy are those of Cargill Meat Solutions and National Beef.
“Packing house” is a nicer term for what once was called a slaughterhouse, much as “meat solutions” is a nicer name for the company, and “harvesting cattle” is a nicer job-description term for the work of putting animals to death, one after another, through the work day. We didn’t push for a look inside the packing houses during our visits, because I have seen places like them before and understand their reality. (The second article I ever did for The Atlantic, when I was free-lancing from Texas in the mid-1970s, was about what it was like inside the Iowa Beef facility in Amarillo, then America’s largest beef slaughterhouse. The premise of the story was that if you eat meat, as I did and do, you should confront the process by which that meat reaches your table.)
If you do eat meat, you are part of the economy that supports the packing houses; the associated feedlots that ring the city and in which the animals spend the final months or weeks of their lives putting on weight; the trucks that roll in non-stop, bearing live animals into the huge buildings on the south side of Dodge City and carrying boxes of cut meat back out; and also the many thousands of people who earn their living inside. Something like a quarter of the beef eaten anywhere in the United States comes through the feedlots, packing houses, and shipment centers of this corner of Kansas. Large quantities are also shipped overseas. This is work America (and the world) wants done, and the people in Dodge and Garden Cities are doing it.