Visitors to Los Angeles often put the Hollywood Sign, the Venice Boardwalk, the Watts Towers on their must-see list, and for the more adventurous and smell-loving, Farmer John’s Meatpacking Plant in Vernon.
A popular destination for location scouts, camp lovers, muralists, and hot dog connoisseurs, this hidden slaughterhouse was characterized less by what happened within its walls than by its bourgeois packaging.
At the corners of Bandini Boulevard, Soto Street and Vernon Avenue, tourists and locals alike can enjoy scenes of a rural, agricultural past unlike Los Angeles’. Painted pigs frolic in green fields by meandering streams under blue, cloudy skies, unaware of the fate that awaits them within.
That fate took a slightly different turn on Friday when the facility’s owner, Smithfield Foods, announced that the facility will close early next year. The Virginia-based company said the move was necessary due to “the escalating costs of doing business in California.”
The fate of the building has not yet been decided. “We are evaluating all of our options,” said Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs.
However, he added, “Farmer John is alive and well and we will provide the great, healthy and nutritious products that customers have come to expect from Farmer John,” but from a different location.
The city of Vernon was less confident. “We are sad,” said City Manager Carlos Fandino.
“The announcement of the closure of Farmer John represents another nail in California’s coffin, pointing to another prominent company that will leave the state,” said Marisa Olguin, president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce.
As a result of the move, workers at the plant – between 1,800 and 2,000 – have to wonder what’s next.
Monroe said Smithfield is giving employees a $7,500 bonus to keep working during the shutdown, and the union representing meatpackers in Vernon issued a statement expressing hope that another operator will take over the plant and the workforce.
Animal rights activists have long made the plant a favorite site for their demonstrations, accusing Smithfield of cruelty to animals and worker exploitation and calling on lawmakers to ban slaughterhouses and factory farms in California. (If pigs could fly: foie gras was off the menu for a while.)
Meanwhile, workers at the plant didn’t want to be on record about the closure, but an employee, who gave his name only as Omar, said Smithfield Foods described an “all hands on deck” meeting on Thursday morning and employees had been instructed , not to speak to the news media.
Omar said the company and the meatpacking union had struggled with negotiations. “I think Smithfield thought it would be easier to close the plant,” he said.
One worker who was hired in recent months said information was sparse and that “nobody really knows anything about our jobs or our future”.
“It sucks because we just want to work,” he said.
Neighbors in Vernon were more willing with their opinions.
Herman Valle, who works across the street at Green Olive Mediterranean restaurant on Soto Street, will be relieved to be done with the “terribly strong” smell he attributed to the plant.
On Monday, he said, two diners were enjoying breakfast outdoors on the patio when they quickly grabbed their plates and tumbled inside. It wasn’t the first time.
“Usually around 9 a.m. the smell is so strong and strong that we have to close the doors,” Valle said. “Anyone who eats outside runs inside because it’s so strong.”
Agustín Álvarez, manager of neighboring Mexican restaurant El Primo, was less sure the plant was responsible for the smell.
“It’s easy to point to the big factory and say that’s where the smell is coming from,” he said. “We are in a city of factories and factories. The smell can come from anywhere, including the river and other treatment facilities.”
However, Álvarez is less worried about the smell than about the loss of jobs.
“My heart goes out to the workers who have lost their jobs,” he said. “They come in, maybe like 50 or more a day, so overall it’s a big loss.”
The plant’s New Year’s order — 70 bowls of rice and 70 bowls of beans — was a nice holiday bonus, Álvarez said.
However, for many Angelenos, the loss may be disappointing. Many are still reeling from Smithfield’s decision at the end of the 2019 Dodger season not to renew his contract with the team in blue.
The world-famous, foot-length Farmer John Dodger Dogs were gone, and fans lost a familiar brand (Papa Cantella’s Dodger Dogs just doesn’t have the same sound) made even more famous by the legendary voice that peddled them.
“Easternmost in quality, Westernmost in aroma,” intoned their pitcher Vin Scully for nearly half a century, words that almost rivaled his famous opening line: “It’s time for Dodger Baseball!”
In a city that changes so often, nostalgia is a tough word for Angelenos, but Smithfield’s decision puts a cherished artistic landmark at risk.
When Leslie A. Grimes raised his paintbrush in front of the Clougherty Meatpacking Plant in 1957, the town was more tolerant of its less than delicate industries.
Vernon was once home to more than 60 packers and 12 slaughterhouses.
This overlooked part of town near the Los Angeles River had sprung straight out of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s murky look at Chicago’s meatpacking industry. But Grimes’ portrait was decidedly less scathing.
Working on a mostly cinder block canvas that covered more than 30,000 square feet, he lavished his somewhat bizarre trompe-l’oeil on more than 200 little pigs (yes, they were counted) to make motorists and pedestrians a Tom Sawyer/Sadie Hawkins -esque vision of pig farming in which Farmer John could actually be Old MacDonald’s next-door neighbor.
For 11 years, Grimes – an Austrian immigrant and former film painter – worked on the vignettes and even once indulged in a portrait of himself on 37th Street, standing on a ladder and painting a pig. Norman Rockwell would be proud.
But as the ancient sages once mused, ars longa, vita brevis (Life is short, art is long), and in 1968 Grimes met an unfortunate end when he fell to his death from scaffolding outside the factory.
His successor, Arno Jordan, assumed responsibility for the maintenance and improvement of the plant.
When asked by The Times if he ever thought about the pig he was painting in anything other than aesthetic terms, Jordan replied, “No…I didn’t mean to spoil my appetite.”