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.

By , Correspondent

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    Shopkeeper Angel Chavez helps a foreign worker wire money back home. Many immigrants who arrive to work in the egg business are put off by the conditions, he says.
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    Wright County Egg sheds in Galt, Iowa. The firm’s tainted eggs led to a national recall last month.
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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.

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?"

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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."

DeCoster came to Wright County in 1990. The county had plenty of corn, and it made sense to raise chickens amid so much feed. And although the county seems remote, it's close to Interstate 35, which whisks traffic quickly north to Minneapolis and south to Des Moines, Iowa.

Wright County Egg isn't the only egg business in the county, but it was the first and is by far the largest. The company has five facilities, each a huddle of long, low-roofed metal buildings. These five facilities house an average of more than 1 million chickens each. The chickens lay 1.4 billion eggs a year, about 1.5 percent of the total US production. Wright County ranks first in Iowa in eggs, and Iowa, with 14.4 billion a year, produces more eggs than any other state.

DeCoster's egg business was controversial from the start, with residents worrying about the nuisance and environmental implications.

"There were numerous community meetings and everything else trying to keep him out," says Barbara Mussman, publisher and editor of the Wright County Monitor, published weekly in Clarion. "But there was really no legitimate way to do that as long as farmers would sell land to him, which they did. And he paid good prices for land."

Many people say DeCoster, who was from Maine, created bad feelings from the start by bringing to town a hard-nosed attitude toward business that offended the town's Midwestern values. He earned a reputation for not paying people who worked for him, especially contractors who built his facilities.

"DeCoster wasn't the nicest guy to work for when he first came here," acknowledges Mr. Maasdam, who did excavation work many years ago for DeCoster. "He was slow paying in the beginning. Now I couldn't ask for a better guy."

Others are less forgiving. John and Joe Haugen, brothers from the nearby town of Dows, say they turned down a small construction job from DeCoster a few years ago. "I'd seen how he dealt with other contractors," says John Haugen. Mr. Haugen says he worked for contractors who struggled to extract full payment from DeCoster for work they did.

DeCoster's operations, especially hog barns he built at the same time as the chicken sheds, also accrued a long list of environmental violations. In 2000, the state's Department of Natural Resources declared him a "habitual violator" for mishandling pig manure and polluting local waters. That status has expired, but around Clarion, people still complain about heaps of chicken manure in the fields, the stench of dead hogs, and infestations of flies.

Sidney Baker, a teacher at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, recalls how his mother, who lived outside town, was part of a group that sued DeCoster over the stench from a hog farm. She eventually received a $40,000 settlement, but Mr. Baker says DeCoster has done little to solve problems until forced to. "I have very little faith in what [DeCoster says] they are going to do versus what they actually do," he says.

Both Wright County Egg and DeCoster declined to comment for this story. DeCoster, who is rarely seen in Clarion, even at his own "Appreciation Day," has not spoken publicly since his business came under the scrutiny of the US Food and Drug Administration this summer.

The egg business brought about another big change. Few whites wanted low-paying jobs in the chicken sheds, and so DeCoster brought in workers from Latin America. Once virtually all-white, Wright County has become almost 10 percent Hispanic.

"At the beginning, when they came, they were not accepted well because they were outsiders," says JoAnn Kramer, a pastoral associate at St. John's Catholic Church, where some of the Hispanic families worship. "I think it's gotten better, but it's got a long ways to go." St. John's itself has tried to become more welcoming. Five years ago it began offering masses in Spanish; two years ago it got a new pastor, a native of Nicaragua.

"To me it don't make no difference," says Wilson Soesbe, owner of Little Willie's, a bar on South Main Street. On Monday night, a white couple was sitting in a booth while three Hispanic men sat on wooden benches in the bar's "smoke shack" out back, watching Spanish language television. "There are a lot of good ones," Mr. Soesbe goes on. "I've gotten to know some of them. But there are troubled ones that make a bad name for the rest of them."

For the workers, the egg business has brought difficulties, too. Wright County Egg has been the target of immigration raids, and in 2002, DeCoster's company agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle a federal lawsuit charging that supervisors harassed and sexually assaulted Hispanic female workers.

And the work is hard.

"A lot of people come and don't like it," says Angel Chavez, who runs a grocery on Main Street and often wires money back home for foreign workers. "They don't like the wintertime. And they don't like the job. It's hard work. And it's nasty. The smell is bad." He says he insisted that his children finish high school to avoid having to work there.

But a job in the chicken shed can also lead to a better life. Ramiro Salgado came into the United States illegally in the 1980s, walking across the border in California. He worked as a field laborer until, 15 years ago, he heard about steady work in the egg business. "We did everything there," he says, including cleaning sheds and packing eggs. "I liked it," he says.

Eventually Mr. Salgado quit and started a restaurant. With a child in school and a sister running another restaurant down the block, he says he feels comfortable in Clarion. Standing outside his restaurant, El Morelence, on South Main Street, he says, "It's my home now."

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