End of the Line

With its largest private employer set to close its doors, tiny Lockney searches for a new economy.

July 2000By Comments

He never quit. J.M. Tye got up early, worked hard, and stayed late, and the farm-implement business that bears his name, the Tye Company, quietly pumped life and jobs into the tiny Panhandle town of Lockney for 36 years. When he died in late March, though, at the age of 86, he knew that Tye would soon close its doors, setting 55 workers adrift. Forget the booming high-tech economy and the big-city dot-com millionaires; for Lockney, it’s the end of an era.

As early as September, AGCO, a Georgia-based company that bought Tye in 1995, will shut down the 175,000-square-foot plant in the name of consolidation. Tye products will live on—production is moving to a plant in Heston, Kansas—but that is little comfort to John Tye, who took over the family business from his father in 1974. He understands why AGCO made the decision, but that doesn’t make it any easier. “There are fewer and fewer farmers, and they need fewer dealers to serve them,” the 55-year-old says. “The problem is you have to be either small enough to be regional or much larger to sell nationally. The folks in the middle have a tough time.”

The birth of J.M. Tye’s business sounds like a classic American success story. In the early sixties, dissatisfied with the available cotton planters, Tye rigged one of his own. His improvements worked so well that his neighbors asked him to make planters for them, and a company was born. J.M. guided the growing business until the seventies, when he gave it to John. “I learned from him that if you weren’t smarter than the rest, then you could outwork them,” John says of his father. “Always be the last to go home.” At its peak, in the early eighties, the Lockney plant employed approximately 150 people, or almost 10 percent of the town.

But hard times were around the corner, and John decided to sell the company to AGCO. He did so knowing that he had no assurances that the plant would stay open, and after the sale, it began to die slowly. First, the production of seed drills and other cultivation products was shut down for two months in late 1998, and older workers were offered early retirement. Then, during a second shutdown in 1999, AGCO announced that the plant would be shut down for good. One final reprieve has production set to cease by the end of September. John is resigned about the loss, the same way that his father was. “He was pragmatic,” John says. “There was nothing he could do, and he knew it. He felt bad mostly for the folks who would be out of a job.”

Rick Vasquez, the machine shop supervisor, is one of those folks. “I’ve been grieving for this job,” says the 44-year-old Vasquez, who has worked at the plant for more than twenty years. “This has been my life. When you work with people that many years, they are family.” Yet he is one of the lucky ones. Vasquez will take on similar duties for another company in the nearby town of Floydada. Matty Martinez, who has worked at the plant since 1976, is unsure about what to do next. “I guess I’ll take it a day at a time,” the 49-year-old says. “I’m not going to retire. I can’t afford to.” The most likely employment options for him are about twelve miles away in Plainview, which has a Wal-Mart Distribution Center and a prison.

Even for those residents who are not directly associated with the AGCO-Tye plant, its closing sounds an alarm. The loss will take a large bite out of the local economy—as much as $1 million a year—and some residents are concerned that Lockney may not recover. “If it’s not related to farming, it’s not going on here,” says 49-year-old mayor Gary Marr, a soft-spoken man struggling to keep the town he grew up in safe from the plagues of drought, low farm-commodity prices, and industry consolidations. “There’s just one stoplight. We probably don’t need it, but it’s kind of a landmark, I guess.”

In the fifties and sixties empty parking spaces were scarce in downtown Lockney on weekends and teenagers cruised the streets or sneaked beer every now and then for entertainment. Like many small Texas towns, though, today parking spots are plentiful, and parents worry more about their children experimenting with drugs instead of alcohol. In fact, concerns about illegal drug use have led to the testing of every student in grades six through twelve, not just those involved in extracurricular activities. It’s perhaps telling of the conservative bent of the community that only one parent refused to sign a consent form for the testing.

On a recent afternoon Marr joined Lindan Morris, a hulking man with a ready grin who purchased Floyd County Farm and Ranch Supply four years ago, for lunch to talk about the plant’s closing and its effects on the community. “I really felt the need to sell Tye equipment, since it’s manufactured here,” the 41-year-old Morris says. “After the plant closed down the first time, however, I haven’t sold anything new.” Morris and Marr also worry about the town’s declining population; at least five young farmers have called it quits in recent years. “When you lose a younger guy who’s not making it, you don’t just lose him. You lose his family and his hired hands,” Morris says. When the new census comes out, Marr expects the town to have about 2,000 residents, down about 350 from a decade ago. That loss is highlighted at the elementary school, where the fourth grade registered 57 pupils this year, but the third grade enrolled only 48. That same class of fourth graders numbered 76 when it started kindergarten.

Lockney’s troubles also reflect a growing dependence on federal subsidies. Cotton was the number one crop in Floyd County in 1999, with 195,000 acres planted. However, the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to grow grass on their land, came in second in total acreage. The growing of wheat placed a distant third. “Farmers are working in good faith with the hope that they’ll have enough to pay expenses and have enough to start again next year,” Morris says. “Government subsidies are keeping us in business—and a lot of other people in business too.”

Marr and other Lockney city leaders realize they may have to look beyond the farm economy for the future of their town. With the departure of AGCO-Tye, people have begun to whisper the dreaded t-word. In May the residents of Floydada narrowly approved an optional half a cent increase in the local sales tax to be earmarked for economic development. Lockney officials are considering doing the same. “For little cities to survive, we have to get with the program,” Marr says. “Ten years ago it wouldn’t have passed, but since we’ve lost AGCO, we realize what an impact it can have.”

This spring Wayland Baptist University students, under the direction of Bobby Hall, an associate professor of business and the outgoing chamber of commerce president, completed a comprehensive survey of Lockney. The group visited every house in town, compared existing businesses with desirable replacements, and researched grants to revitalize the downtown area. “They found a keen interest for an economic-development sales tax,” Hall says. “This community recognizes the need to be aggressive in the area of economic development.”

Yet there are bright spots for the town whose motto is “Just a little spot, but we care a lot.” In recent years residents have funded the construction of youth baseball fields and the Floyd County Friends Unity Center. “The good thing about farmers is they know how to do a lot of things, and they have the equipment to do it,” Marr says. A handful of new retail businesses are also are popping up, and the city has found at least two businesses possibly interested in moving into the AGCO site. Tye, who retains ownership of the land, met with officials and offered his support. Lockney leaders are also looking to attract a few more people like Marr, who uses a fax machine and a modem to telecommute to his job as a seed buyer for a cottonseed oil mill in Lamesa.

It’s too late, though, to save the jobs at the AGCO-Tye plant. “You hear about corporate downsizing, but you don’t think it will happen to you,” Vasquez says. “I have great days, and then I have days where I resent it. Other days I stay late because I don’t want to leave.” Currently the plant has been reduced to a four-day manufacturing schedule, so on Fridays only a handful of employees still come to work. Among them is 41-year-old J.R. Lerma, who has worked at the plant since 1978. He is one of just two employees who will relocate to another AGCO facility. Lerma, who coaches Little League and lives on the same street as his in-laws, expects difficulty in selling the home he could own outright in just two years. On Fridays he is left to ponder the ghost some say wanders the plant. “We’ve heard noises, and some claimed to have seen an image walk by,” Lerma says. “I think it’s just their imagination, but on Fridays only four people are here. When the wind blows through, it can be pretty scary.”

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