One last vigil at Farmer John for the pigs that never came

Ellen Dent approached a microphone outside the Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon on Thursday night with a stunned look on her face.

It was the last official week of activity for the iconic establishment. Farmer John’s parent company, Smithfield Foods, argued the closure was necessary because of the supposedly rising cost of doing business in California. Crowds had gathered since Sunday to celebrate. They had held up protest signs as double-decker cattle trailers full of pigs drove into the factory. Famous vegan musician Moby spoke one evening. So did San Jose-area Assemblyman Ash Kalra, the only vegan in the California Legislature.

That night, the plant’s last, around 130 people stood around Dent, executive director of the non-profit Animal Alliance Network, which had helped organize twice-weekly ‘pig vigils’ almost continuously for the past seven years. White rose petals decorated the asphalt. Above her, graphic scenes of slaughterhouses were projected onto a wall. Red hazard lights flashed along the curbs.

After years of weekly vigils, activists gather one last time outside the Farmer John meat processing plant on the last day to take delivery of pigs for slaughter.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Dozens of people had protested outside Farmer John since that afternoon. Dent was to stay until 3 a.m., or whenever the last 18-wheeler dropped off its cargo. Everyone thought they would have one last chance to see pigs led to their deaths. But no truck had passed all day. Now, Dent told those in attendance, she knew why.

“Last night was the last night for the delivery of the pigs,” Dent said in a calm voice and wide-eyed. A worker inside had just called to tell him the news. “This is the closing event. You are part of this story. Let’s close this place in style.

A silent cheer went up. Friends and strangers showered her with hugs. Independent journalists took photos and broadcast live.

“It’s bittersweet, because this factory is going to be replaced by another one in the Midwest,” she told me. “And we won’t be able to draw a crowd there. That’s what they do. They run.

It was the unexpected end to an unlikely relationship between a pork empire and animal rights activists.

For years, Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest pork producer – allowed people to water pigs while truckers waited for the factory doors to open. This act of compassion gained international coverage. Celebrities like Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal have stopped by. Some of the Vernon police officers who stood guard even went vegan.

 Thirsty pigs lap up water offered by people

Thirsty pigs lap up water donated by people gathered outside Farmer John’s processing plant in 2019. Dozens of people gather here twice a week, leading what they call a vigil for trucked animals to the establishment for slaughter.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

A pig laps water through an opening in the cage.

A pig laps up water donated by people gathered outside Farmer John’s processing plant in February 2019.

(Los Angeles Times)

Like most other detentes between opposing groups over the past two years, the goodwill did not last.

In 2020, 20 protesters were arrested for blocking trucks, while seven others were cited for entering the factory and trying to get away with a pig. Smithfield declared a total ban on approaching trailers, which has carried to the present day. Jim Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs, said “any interaction like [letting strangers give pigs water] would be considered a violation of good food safety and animal health practices.

The vigils continued. Participants believe their continued presence is what ultimately led to the plant’s closure.

Before Dent’s speech, Kassidy King and Shailee Prince, both of Sun Valley, sat outside one of Farmer John’s massive doors. King was a newcomer, Prince a regular.

“We made noise. We made them uncomfortable,” Prince said as he gave a peace sign to a honking van.

A block away, Jonathan Ohayon and other chefs served up free food — vegan, of course. Herbal jerky. Cajun fries. Chili. Chocolate bars.

Ohayon, a French immigrant who lives in Redondo Beach, regularly attended vigils before the pandemic.

“We promised to see this factory close one day,” he said, scraping a griddle to make strawberry pancakes. “And today is the day.”

If there was any disappointment that no pigs came, no one showed it.

Vendors hawked hoodies and t-shirts. A volunteer wearing a neon green vest and holding a flashlight slowed approaching cars. The police moved around, sometimes parking to chat with the leaders, but leaving the people to do their job.

A Farmer John worker occasionally popped his head over a wall. Above him, a giant, twirling graphic that read “Stop Killing Go Vegan” was projected onto a warehouse next to a painted American flag.

Cesar Acebedo, the evening’s host, walked around with a bundle of burning sage “because of the smell, but also the negative energy.” He told the crowd, some of whom carried pump sprayers and water bottles, that the permanent shutdown “hasn’t really been figured out yet… It’s really surreal. I hear someone shout “Truck!” and flinch, then get ready to run towards them. But that won’t happen again.”

Cesar Acebedo Animal Alliance Network

Cesar Asebedo, co-director of the Animal Alliance network, fans the flame on a bundle of sage as demonstrators gather outside the Farmer John meat processing plant to protest the slaughter of pigs.

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

It was hard to hear anything because of the traffic and the hum of Farmer John’s air filtration system. A range of speakers – old, young, black, white, Latino – nevertheless recited poems, spoken word pieces, written and improvised speeches. They praised veganism, decried factory farming and called for tolerance towards meat eaters.

“I avoided coming to these wakes selfishly because I didn’t want to have eye contact with a pig and I knew there was nothing I could do right now,” said actress Justina Adorno, who came this New York day. .

Melissa Olivos and her daughter, Jayleen, also showed up for the first time. She had brought carne asada vegan tacos from her Inland Empire chain, Viva Vegan.

“Everyone in my family hated me coming to the holiday parties because I was this boring vegan,” Melissa said with a laugh. “So I thought, ‘If I start showing them the food was a bomb, then they’d listen to me. “”

Her efforts were so successful that her mother, a former will tackle, no longer eat meat. “Now she is more vegan than me. And I’m like, what?!”

“We could party. We could watch Netflix,” Olivos concluded. “But we are here, making a difference.”

The talks dragged on so long that the red hazard lights ran out and the dozens of candles distributed to attendees around hour 2 had melted to pieces by hour 3. But few had left and more were arriving at the moment Acebedo asked for a moment of silence while a Sanskrit mantra played on a smartphone. It was 11:15 a.m. and it was getting colder every minute.

The vigil ended with a walk to the corner of Vernon Avenue and Soto Street for a group photo in front of the infamous Farmer John murals – those that show hundreds of happy pigs wallowing in mud or resting on the grass alongside their would-be owner. Then the attendees hung out to catch up and spend some more time together. That was it.

Farmer John protest

The final march in front of the Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon

(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Minna Eisenhauer waved a green and blue flag with a white V. She had offered her animal sanctuary in Orange as a home for the last pig delivered to Farmer John.

Monroe, Smithfield’s vice president of corporate affairs, declined the request, saying: “It would be doing a disservice to these farmers and the time and resources they have invested in raising these food animals for consider such a request.”

“They were blessed with kindness and compassion — just that little thing,” Eisenhower said. “And they didn’t.”

Christin To and Sara Cruz stood near anti-Farmer John slogans chalked on the sidewalk.

“I was emotionally scared to come, but this community is great,” said To, who is from Thousand Oaks.

“Wow, you drove so far to get here!” Cruz remarked. Then she thinks about the future.

“I hope this slaughterhouse can be transformed into something compassionate,” the Glendale resident said. “A museum, a gallery. Put life and love there, not a place filled with death.

Los Angeles Times

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