Garden City is a multicultural oasis in the middle of wheat country.
Nestled in the southwestern corner of the state -- amid wheat fields, feedlots and meat-packing plants -- is the city a Kansas University anthropology professor considers to be the most fascinating in Kansas.
Don Stull began studying Garden City in 1987, drawn to the changing face of the farming community's population. The Iowa Beef Processors Inc. plant that opened in 1980 in Finney County began attracting new faces to the town named by a passing hobo. Southeast Asians and families from Mexico, Cuba, South America and Central America began moving in, learning the beefpacking trade.
What resulted was a cultural and population boom in a city that had not featured much diversity in the past. Garden City grew by 33 percent between 1980 and 1985, as 6,000 people moved to work in the processing industry.
Stull led a team of researchers from 1988 to 1990 in a study of Garden City funded by the Ford Foundation. Since then, he has studied other communities impacted by the beefpacking industry, such as Lexington, Neb., and Guymon, Okla.
"About the time of the Garden City field work, a new IBP plant opened in Lexington, Neb., then a town of 6,500," Stull said. "Our research helped folks there get an idea of what was going to happen. A few years later, we gave technical assistance to Guymon, Okla."
One of the lessons that Stull and other researchers have learned is that "communities experience similar types of changes when a packing plant moves in, whether it's beef or pork or poultry. They experience rapid growth, ethnic diversity, increased demands on social services and infrastructure and housing shortages."
Communities such as Garden City typically are not characterized by surplus labor, so packing companies look outside for employees, recruiting with a ripple effect. Meat packing also is prone to great turnover, 6 percent to 8 percent monthly in southwest Kansas, Stull said.
"The far-away workers are most likely to be immigrants," he said.
Garden City, then, has had to adjust to its changing demographics. The community features pockets of ethnic businesses, including a restaurant Stull swears serves the best Vietnamese food he has ever eaten. A clothing store attracts Asian women as well as Latinos and petite women.
Initially, the businesses only attracted other immigrants, but now longtime Garden City residents are perusing them, said Stull..
Changes in the majority
Garden City no longer is marked by a majority population, Stull said. Minorities are the majority.
The newest wave of immigrants is Mexican Mennonites with German heritage who migrated from Canada to Mexico. The third most-often spoken language in Garden City is German, Stull said. Those immigrants are not working so much in the town's two meat packing plants -- the other being Monfort -- but for farmers and in the dairy industry.
Turnover has a huge effect in Garden City, he said. The rate per year at the plants is 75 percent to 100 percent, with a total community turnover rate of 25 percent annually.
"That represents a major challenge for the schools," Stull said.
A difficult life
Meat packing attracts immigrants mostly because the workers don't have to speak English to get by, and the workers don't have to have experience at it. The jobs pay from $6 to $11 an hour. A worker making $9 an hour -- assuming he or she works 40 hours a week every week -- brings in $18,720 annually, which is below the poverty line for a family of four, for example.
The problem is compounded because "immigrants historically are trying to get their feet on the ground and are very often sending money home to their families left behind."
Substandard housing and children left alone because both parents work -- often one during the day shift and one during the night -- places great strains on families, Stull said.
Overall, however, Garden City has coped well, the professor said.
"Garden City has realized that its cosmopolitan nature is a selling point, and it has capitalized on it."
-- Deb Gruver is a 1985 graduate of Garden City High School. Her phone message number is 832-7165, and her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.