In Iowa Egg Country: Stench, Suspicion, and Fear

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Joe Fassler


In Wright County, Iowa, locals disagree whether the presence of egg and pork mogul Jack DeCoster has helped the community. But one thing everyone agrees on is the smell.

"It used to be nice-smelling country," Ron Bennett, a retiree who has lived in Wright County his whole life, told me. "The water used to be clean. Now it stinks. I don't think there's a whole lot of love around here for Mr. DeCoster." Barb Noonan, who's opening a consignment shop in downtown Clarion, recently had to shut the vents above her storefront door to bar the stench.

Scott Etter, who owns and manages the popular restaurant New Home Café on Main Street, blames the massive open-pit lagoons that store liquefied hog and hen feces outside DeCoster-owned facilities. He lives about a mile from one of them, and lives with the resulting odor most of the year. "You smell it a lot," he said. "When you clean out your rain gutters, the leaves smell like pig poop."

Residents hardly need the stink of countless confined animals to remind them of DeCoster's presence. The company's long and sordid history has left lasting impressions on the communal psyche.

Etter said the lagoons cause a host of related problems—like the thick black flies that swarm Wright County in biblical plague proportions. "Sometimes I go out into the yard and the whole yard looks like it's moving because there's black flies everywhere," Etter said. "It never used to be that way." He wants DeCoster to use feed additives that will help with fly control, but so far few measures have been taken to tackle the problem. For Etter, it's one more instance of how Jack DeCoster, who owns the two Wright County facilities blamed for this month's massive salmonella outbreak, is always eager to cut corners.

Residents in Galt, Dows, and Clarion, Wright's county seat, can set their calendars to the stench's ebb and swell. "Spring and fall, when they pump the pits out and spread it on the field, there's about 10 or 12 days when you can't go out of your house it smells so bad," Etter said. Thickly concentrated animal manure is never pleasant, but DeCoster-owned enterprises have historically invited legal trouble by spreading excessive amounts of animal waste on local cropland. Faulty lagoons have also leaked into nearby creeks and the Iowa River.

Then there are the facilities themselves, huge windowless buildings usually several hundred feet long, grouped in rows of 10 or so and painted Easter-egg aqua to blend in with the Iowa sky. Their walls are lined with huge industrial fans that look like portholes on an ocean liner; they pump heavy, reeking air out into the countryside. Drive within 100 feet of a chicken house and the air becomes dusty and stifling, so thickly stale and yeasty that it blears the eyes. Craig Radechel, a local contractor, said that Peter DeCoster, Jack's son and business partner, once brought him inside a newly built hog containment facility. "You can be in there five minutes, and when you come out, you stink," Radechel said. "It's so concentrated in you, you can't get it out. It's horrible."

As bad as the smell can get in downtown Clarion, it's worse in the Wright County countryside. In recent years, the network of DeCoster-owned facilities has forced historically rural-dwelling people to move to the county's urban centers. Tom Jenkins, a woodworker who sells handmade benches and chairs from his store in Clarion, told me that as DeCoster's enterprises grew, "Lots of families gave up living in the country. People were moving into town left and right for a long time. People who lived within distance of the hog and chicken joints—they got pushed out by the smell." But even on Main Street, pungent evidence of DeCoster's work remains. "I walked down to lunch today," Jenkins said, "and there was a hog truck that went down Highway 3 right in front of me. I had to hold my breath. On humid days, if a hog truck goes through, you might smell that stuff for two days."

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Joe Fassler

Animals, of course, smell—so it should be no surprise that DeCoster's highly-concentrated operations stink. According to the Des Moines Register, DeCoster owns nine of the 13 Wright County industrial-scale chicken facilities, and his buildings together house a total of nearly 9 million birds. But residents hardly need the stink of countless confined animals and their feces to remind them of DeCoster's presence in their towns. The long and sordid history of DeCoster company misbehavior has left lasting impressions on the communal psyche.

Nearly every person I spoke to offered details about a different DeCoster scandal in Iowa, and a handful of past incidents still resonate deeply. At Little Willie's, a bar in Clarion, patrons told me about a 1996 incident in which two Wright County Egg supervisors performed a "citizen's arrest" on Lucas Ortega, a 19-year-old former employee who helped steal a company computer. The men, John Glessner and Myron Lawler, allegedly brutalized Ortega, bound him, and brought him to an egg facility for interrogation. Both were convicted for false imprisonment and assault; the charges against each were reversed on appeal. It was the same year that OSHA leveled a historic 3.6 million fine against a DeCoster-run farm in Turner, ME, for a long list of "egregious" and "serious" environmental, worker rights, and safety violations. Glessner is now CEO of Ohio Fresh Eggs, a company with close DeCoster ties, and Lawler is currently employed under him there.

There are examples of mere ineptitude: in August of 1999, a prisoner slipped away from a poorly supervised prison labor team at DeCoster-owned Boomsma Egg near Clarion. But most of the locally famous infractions are far more serious. In 2000, the Iowa Attorney General named DeCoster the state's first ever "habitual violator" because of his operations' consistent disregard for the state's environmental laws. In 2002, the business gained further notoriety when DeCoster Farms settled, but did not admit liability, in a suit brought by 11 female employees who maintained that they were raped or otherwise coerced into having sex with their male Wright County supervisors. The settlement was $1.5 million, and no criminal charges were filed.

This consistent criminal behavior, combined with the chronically lax legal repercussions, has left some with a fear of DeCoster's power and influence that borders on awe. Many of the people I approached for interviews felt deeply uncomfortable discussing the topic and refused to speak on record. One small farmer who raises hens for his own use and whose property is directly across from a DeCoster hog facility, said: "I don't want my name printed in anything even mentioning Jack DeCoster." Ron Bennett, who unequivocally denounced DeCoster company practices during his interview, half-joked: "Gee, do you think the old man's going to send somebody after me now?"

Despite the bad press, the DeCoster family has a strong contingent of personal friends and local supporters. The owner of Mr. G's Men's Store on Main Street, Clarion, declined to be interviewed, stating close personal ties to the family. Nola Waddingham, a local librarian, praised the DeCoster family for contributing a sizable donation that helped build a "Children's Center" in the newly-refurbished Clarion Public Library. And the family has a long history of philanthropy in the area—offering 700 people free chicken dinners during their Wright County Appreciation meals, for instance, or sponsoring local festivals, or refurbishing public structures.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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