Like his father and his father’s father, Dave Vasquez for years put in 10-hour days at a South St. Paul meat-processing plant. And just like them, he was laid off when the plant closed without warning.

In his case, it was the Dakota Premium Foods beef-processing plant in South St. Paul — the last of its kind in this once-bustling livestock hub. It closed abruptly earlier this month after nearly three quarters of a century, leaving 300 workers out of a job. Company officials said the closing is only temporary.

Vasquez, 51, a chief union steward at the plant, said his first thought when he heard the news was for some of his co-workers with young children, already struggling to make ends meet.

Some, he says, saw the writing on the wall as their hours were cut.

“It started slowing down big time in the last year, but in the last six months even more so. We went from working full days to only like six or seven hours a day. They were just having trouble getting cattle,” said Vasquez, who has worked at the plant since 2006. “A lot of people are bummed out, because that’s how they put their food on the table.”

Officials blamed the plant’s closure on a protracted industry slump brought on by a shortage of cattle in the drought-parched Southwest.

An uncertain future

The mood among the workers at the plant — which was processing about 500 head of cattle a week, down from 900 a few years ago — was tense, with some wondering if and when it would reopen, said Don Seaquist, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1189. The union represents about 275 of the plant’s nonmanagement employees.

Up to 75 of the laid-off workers may be moved to a 400-worker sister plant in Long Prairie, Minn. — configured to process larger bulls — which is running at full capacity, Seaquist previously said.

The River Heights Chamber of Commerce said in a statement last week that “information on unemployment, resume preparation, job searching and more” would be offered to help affected workers find new jobs.

A Dakota Premium-operated freezer distribution center in neighboring Newport also closed, affecting about half a dozen workers, Seaquist said.

Officials for the company, a subsidiary of Alexandria, Minn.-based American Foods Group, have said the closing is only temporary, but offered no timetable on when the plant might reopen.

“We regret that the current limited cattle supplies, the smallest numbers since the early 1950s, [have ] forced us to make this very difficult decision,” Dan Mehesan, president of American Foods’ fresh meat division, said in a statement. “Our hope is that cattle supplies will increase in the coming months.”

Company officials did not respond to a call seeking further comment.

End of meatpacking era

Seaquist also blamed the closing on political apathy, noting that the city has for years tried to shake its reputation as a smelly industrial hub, left over from the days when the local meatpacking industry was centered there.

Local officials, who have long blamed Dakota Premium and others for contributing to the fetid smell hanging around the former stockyards, were only too eager to see the plant close, he said.

But South St. Paul City Administrator Steve King disputed that claim, saying the city wasn’t “involved in encouraging or discouraging anything.

“Frankly it just dropped in our lap,” King said. “Long-term we did want to see a transformation of the property. Short-term, obviously the impact on (the workers) is certainly sad to see. We’re kind of caught in the middle.”

The City Council last week unanimously passed a long-awaited ordinance limiting activity that could spread odors.

The Dakota Premium building, at 425 Concord St. S., sits just down the road from the colossal and now defunct Armour and Co. meatpacking plant where Vasquez’s father and grandfather worked. Both were laid off when the plant closed in 1979.