Plants ushered out on-farm commercial slaughtering

Published 4:48 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Editor’s note: This is the final column in a four-part series on the origins of the century-old hog slaughter industry in Smithfield. (Read part one, part two, or part three)

Southeast Virginia hog farmers were doing everything they could think of to forestall the day when their on-farm slaughter operations would have to cease, and delay helped the meat packers as well.

While the Gwaltney plant was up and running, the company was not operating year-round in 1937 and 1938 because it didn’t have the cooling capacity to handle hogs during hot weather.

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The Luter family plant, Smithfield Packing, opened for business in 1937 but was not a slaughter facility.

Thus, on-farm slaughter remained an important element in the industry. The federal government agreed to send an inspector into the region to issue certificates of inspection for on-farm slaughtered animals as a stop-gap measure, and the historic winter on-farm kill continued into 1938.

While 1936 was a pivotal year for the local industry, 1939 would be the year when the future more fully took shape.

In August 1939, the Gwaltney brothers completed a plant expansion and installed plantwide air conditioning. That change allowed Gwaltney to buy live hogs year-round. The Smithfield Times proclaimed that Gwaltney was “now buying live hogs.”

(People weren’t squeamish in those days about where their bacon came from. They knew. And on Oct. 26, 1939, they were graphically reminded when The Smithfield Times published a Page 1 photo of the new Gwaltney cut floor with hog carcasses on the rail.)

On the same day that completion of the Gwaltney plant expansion was announced, The Smithfield Times carried an adjacent story announcing that J.W. Luter Sr. and J.W. Luter Jr. had joined forces with P.D. Pruden of Suffolk to open a slaughterhouse in that city.

J.W. Luter III, who would later take the company to worldwide pork production dominance, confirmed in a recent phone conversation that the Suffolk plant was indeed built to meet the government standard and to provide the fledgling Smithfield Packing Co. with the meat it needed to compete with Gwaltney. Hogs were slaughtered in Suffolk and the inspected carcasses hauled to Smithfield for processing, he said.

Farmers now had a choice of federally inspected packing plants to which their hogs could be sold.

Three years later, Smithfield Packing Co. bought out its partners and began plans to construct an abattoir in Smithfield to compete head-to-head with Gwaltney.

In July 1946, Smithfield Packing Co. opened that plant, which was capable of processing 1,600 hogs a day plus cattle and calves. The Smithfield Rotary and Ruritan clubs held a joint meeting in the plant’s employee cafeteria hosted by company President Joseph W. Luter Jr.

With that plant’s opening, Smithfield was established as the hog slaughter and processing center for the East Coast, and the days of commercial on-farm hog slaughter had finally ended. Farmers would continue killing hogs for their own use for years to come, but the meat was ineligible for resale except in a very limited manner.

Gwaltney and Smithfield Packing would buy local hogs for decades to come and, as the businesses grew, they both reached farther and farther beyond local farms for hogs. By the 1950s, hogs were being shipped to Smithfield by truck from as far away as the Midwest. Animals also came by rail in livestock cars to Suffolk and from there were trucked to Smithfield, according to longtime Smithfield Packing executive Tom Ross.

Local hog prices followed Chicago market prices, though both plants had their favorite local hog producers and might add a premium when a local producer could deliver hogs on the morning they were needed.

The two plants competed head-to-head until 1981, when Smithfield Foods, which by then owned Smithfield Packing and was presided over by J.W. Luter III, purchased Gwaltney, which had been sold by the Gwaltney family to ITT some years earlier.

A few years later, Smithfield Foods began breeding and raising its own hogs for processing. That move also became a benchmark for the industry, ending most small-scale on-farm hog operations while creating a market hog that produced more pounds of marketable meat than was ever previously possible.

Today, there are few if any local hogs produced in Isle of Wight except those owned by Smithfield Foods, and none are slaughtered here.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is