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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.