Founded in 1935 in Springdale (Washington County), Tyson Foods has emerged as one of Arkansas’s most prominent companies, employing more than 100,000 workers. By the end of the twentieth century, it had become one of the largest meat-processing companies in the world, with millions of customers in the United States and in more than eighty countries worldwide. Forbes magazine currently lists it as one of America’s 100 largest companies, and it continues to play a pivotal role in the state’s economy.
Following the collapse of the fruit industry in northwest Arkansas in the late 1920s, many farmers turned to raising poultry as a source of income. The connection of Highway 71 to Midwest markets such as Kansas City, Missouri, allowed John Tyson, among others, to begin shipping goods northward. Tyson had moved to Springdale (Washington County) in 1931 with his first wife, Mildred Ernst Tyson, and one-year-old son, Don, and earned his living hauling hay, fruit, and chickens for local farmers. In 1935, after borrowing the necessary start-up funds, Tyson made his first long-distance load, hauling chickens to Kansas City and St. Louis, Missouri. The following year, he began hauling birds to the more lucrative Chicago, Illinois, market. On his first journey there, he turned a profit of $235, encouraging him to start shipping poultry to Midwest markets on a full-time basis.
Tyson soon expanded his poultry-shipping business to Cincinnati, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and beyond, but when a shortage of baby chicks threatened his trucking business, he established his own hatchery and, later, a commercial feed business. World War II proved to be a boon for Tyson, as wartime rationing of beef and government subsidization of poultry made many northwest Arkansas chicken producers—particularly John Tyson—enormous profits. In 1943, he invested in a poultry-growing operation, and accordingly, the process of vertical integration—in which a poultry firm owns virtually every step of the production process from feed to distribution.
The end of the war marked the beginning of a new period for Tyson, as the industry faced increasing uncertainty: diseases ravaged many poultry farms, and the postwar adjustment of the economy caused drastic price fluctuations, which forced many poultry growers into bankruptcy. Fending off potential buyouts from larger firms such as the Swanson Company, Tyson, with his son Don now working for his father, instead began to buy up local competitors. By 1957, the Tyson firm built its first poultry-processing plant on the north side of Springdale. The company had thus developed from a trucking firm into a poultry company that controlled nearly every aspect of production. Most of the actual raising of birds was undertaken by contract growers who were nominally independent contractors. But as a 1967 U.S. Department of Agriculture report noted, such growers were essentially employees of Tyson.
Throughout the 1960s, Tyson continued to expand, buying up competing firms and even dabbling in the retail sale of chickens with its short-lived “Chicken Huts.” In 1967, Don Tyson suddenly took the helm of the company after John Tyson and his wife were killed when their car was struck by a train. Over the next three decades, Don Tyson would oversee the company’s growth into one of the world’s leading food producers.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the company, known as Tyson Foods, Inc., after 1971, continuing its expansion into new markets. In 1977, Tyson purchased major hog-producing facilities in North Carolina. In 1982, the firm made the Fortune 500 list as one of America’s largest companies, and it also secured lucrative contracts to supply chicken nuggets to restaurants such as fast-food giant McDonald’s. Seven years later, the company purchased Holly Farms. This acquisition nearly doubled its market share which, prior to the buyout, had stood at 13.5 percent. The following decade saw even more growth as Tyson bought Hudson Foods and, in 2001, Iowa Beef Producers.
By the early twenty-first century, Tyson Foods stood as the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork. Yet along the way, the company has drawn considerable controversy for its business practices. Labor union advocates have charged Tyson with taking a strident anti-union stance, and the company withstood major strikes at processing plants in, for example, Pasco, Washington, and Jefferson, Wisconsin. Environmentalists have charged that the company consistently flouts environmental and safety standards. In 2001, a trial was held in Shelbyville, Tennessee, in which Tyson managers were accused of smuggling illegal aliens into the country to work in poultry-processing plants. The trial ended in acquittal but nevertheless tarnished Tyson’s image as a corporate citizen.
In 2006, the company underwent a major reshuffling of its leadership, as Don Tyson’s son, John, stepped down as CEO (a position he had held since 2000) and was replaced by Richard Bond. This came in the midst of mounting problems: late in 2006, the company reported losses in excess of $196 million for the year. Despite recent struggles, the company remains one of the most successful businesses in Arkansas history, rivaling only Walmart Inc. and Stephens, Inc. in terms of its size and influence.
For additional information:
“About Tyson.” Tyson Foods Inc. http://www.tyson.com/our-story (accessed December 21, 2017).
Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants. Human Rights Watch. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2005/usa0105/ (accessed December 21, 2017).
Leonard, Christopher. The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
Schwartz, Marvin. Tyson: From Farm to Market. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
Riffel, Brent. “The Feathered Kingdom: Tyson Foods and the Transformation of American Land, Labor, and Law, 1930–2005.” Ph.D. diss., University of Arkansas, 2008.
———. “The Nuevo South: Tyson Foods and the Transformation of American Labor.” Southern Historian 29 (Spring 2008): 21–35.
Strausberg, Stephen. From Hills and Hollers: The Rise of the Poultry Industry in Arkansas. Fayetteville: Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1995.
Striffler, Steve. Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Brent E. Riffel
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville