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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."