Chicken magnate and Clarion, Iowa: uneasy pairing even before egg recall
The man behind Wright County Egg, the firm involved in last month's egg recall, may not be reviled in Iowa, but he's not admired either. How his egg business has changed Clarion, Iowa.
Austin "Jack" DeCoster's egg business has brought hundreds of jobs to this flat corn-and-soybean country of north central Iowa. Mr. DeCoster has personally contributed generously to many civic causes – an aquatic center, a retirement community, a parking lot downtown. Each year he serves townspeople a free meal in the town park for his "Appreciation Day." When the Clarion Public Library reopened last year after extensive renovation and expansion, the beautiful new children's corner was thanks to DeCoster.Skip to next paragraph
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But many residents of this little county seat of 3,000 people still strain to speak well of him.
"I think he's done a lot of good in the county," says Scott Etter, owner of the New Home Cafe, where DeCoster occasionally dines. "On the other hand, why is he doing all this good? To calm the waters, or out of the goodness of his heart?"
The mixed views of DeCoster reflect the ambivalence over how the egg business has changed Clarion and surrounding Wright County during the past two decades. Indeed, few people were surprised when DeCoster's company, Wright County Egg, was found this year to have shipped salmonella-tainted eggs, launching a recall last month of 380 million eggs. In the eyes of Clarion, it's been trouble from the start. Federal inspectors this week found mice and other sanitation lapses at the Wright County Egg chicken sheds.
The egg industry has brought clear economic benefits to Wright County – and not just jobs in the chicken sheds. The chickens consume semitrailers full of corn and soybeans grown by local farmers, which fetch higher prices than if the farmers had to ship their grain to a distant river port. There are also less obvious benefits, such as more than 100 jobs at a new company that makes packaging for eggs, a development that has helped ease the sting of other companies in the area shutting down or moving operations to Mexico. And schools are fuller because of the children of egg company workers.
Without the industry, say local officials, both Clarion and Wright County would have seen more of the decline that afflicts scores of rural communities across Iowa.
"A lot of people disagree with me, but our county would have been a lot lower if we didn't have them," says Larry Maasdam, a county supervisor and building contractor.
But with the chickens have also come environmental and labor problems, occasional immigration raids, and a wave of new Hispanic residents that the town is struggling to absorb.
"It's not the town I moved away from," says Mr. Etter, who left Clarion for a dozen years before returning in 1995. "The town has changed."