In Iowa Egg Country: Stench, Suspicion, and Fear
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."
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.
But some feel that these are merely bribes, consistent with a long pattern of attempts to buy friends. Etter recollected the nice treatment DeCoster employees gave him when he bought his home near a hog facility: "The first year, they gave us a whole pork loin," he said. "'Here you go, sorry about the smell,' they said. Then the next year, we got a nice big whole ham—that was something, anyway. The next year, we got a one-pound pack of bacon. And we haven't seen anything since. I'm thinking, well jeez—the bribes's gone, but the smell's still there! What's going on?"
The DeCoster Farms corporate office is a small brick building, dwarfed in size by the animal confinements, and flies three flags at full mast: one is the American, one is the Iowan, and one is white with a blood-red crucifix.
For many, the vicissitudes of life with DeCoster far outweigh the benefits. "There's a big hog confinement out on County Route 38," Jenkins said, "and there are so many abuses. Pigs die left and right in those places. They just throw the corpses out into the open to be picked up by whoever runs the rendering plant up in Belmond [Iowa]. They turn them into rawhide ears for dogs, and grind them up into all kinds of things." The flagrant disrespect for animal life, he said, disturbs him. In my short time in Wright County, I saw one major instance of an improperly disposed of animal carcass: several 1,000-pound sows thrown into a dumpster at 2711 240th St., right outside a DeCoster hog house, in broad daylight, five feet from a public road.
Perhaps the most divisive issue of all is DeCoster's seemingly routine employment of illegal immigrants in his facilities. Many feel especially betrayed on this score, having once hoped that DeCoster's presence would help create local jobs. In 2003, Jack DeCoster pled guilty to aiding and abetting the continued employment of illegal aliens. To hear local residents tell it, the federally imposed fine has done no good, and illegally hired workers still flood into Clarion to work for DeCoster.
Willie Soesbe runs Little Willie's, Clarion's favorite pub, and told me that revolving groups of Mexican, Honduran, and Czech immigrants are regular customers. Some are in the country on temporary 6-month work visas, he said, but most are illegal. He mentioned a recent incident when a bar guest offered to pay him in exchange for use of his Social Security number. Soesbe had a long-held policy of only serving patrons with U.S. ID, but has since recanted somewhat, he says, because he needs the added business.
The employment rate among the Spanish-speaking Latino population is high in Clarion, but English-speaking white residents, who are reluctant to work at the stigmatized and low-paying DeCoster plants, are having more difficulty finding jobs. Hewlett Packard, who was a major employer, recently closed its Clarion office. The Electrolux plant in nearby Webster City will close its doors in December, and the company will give the production to its plant in Juarez, Mexico, where cheap labor is abundant. As a result of the economic competition, racial tensions run high. Soesbe said that racially motivated scuffles are common in his bar. "I just had the first fight in 13 years where a pool cue was used," he told me. "It was a Hispanic man who worked for DeCoster. He put six staples in the head of a white guy, and now he's been deported."
El Morelence, a restaurant that's a hub for Clarion's Mexican population, is a kind of cultural foil for the New House Café and Little Willie's, which face it across Main Street. Immigrant men and women gather for dinner at 5:30. The owner, who asked to be identified as Ramiro, said that he knew many of them to be plant workers. Some of the patrons had badly bloodshot, irritated-looking eyes, which may have been the result of working long hours in the tightly clustered, dusty henhouse spaces. As an obvious outsider who speaks little Spanish, I was regarded with suspicion by the people I spoke to. When I introduced myself as a reporter to one man Ramiro told me worked in the henhouses, he said only "Good luck" and waited for me to leave. The threat to job security is understandable, but several people seemed to take pleasure in blocking my attempts to enter the community: another man, whom Ramiro had insisted spoke English, would say only "no hablo ingles" again and again to my questions. When I walked out the door, he hollered, "See you later, buddy, have a good day."
For one 24-year-old Mexican immigrant, at least, business is good. The man, who wished to be quoted anonymously, spoke cheerily about his daily duties at an egg-breaking facility owned and operated by DeCoster. "The plants that are not packing eggs [because of salmonella contamination] are sending all the eggs to the breaker," he said. "So I'm working much more." A typical shift begins at 6 a.m. and will go until 7 p.m., with three breaks during the day. The man helps unload eggs from trucks packed with coolers that bring them in from all over DeCoster's many henhouses. There, eggs are placed on a conveyor, where they go through a washing machine. After that, he said, "They go into a room where there's two ladies checking for nasty eggs. The bad ones have blood, or they look green, and sometimes they are stinking and black. They drop those into a drain, and every three or four days a truck comes to take the bad eggs to make food for dogs, or for chicken feed, or for fertilizer." The good eggs are broken, liquefied and pasteurized, then bought by "companies like Burger King or McDonalds who use the liquid eggs for their breakfast meals" or by companies who make other processed foods.
Most of the white locals I spoke to have never worked in or otherwise been in the plants. Though some claimed to know immigrant workers, proximity to plant life remains a hugely divisive factor between communities. Aside from the swirling news headlines, visits from meddling reporters, and of course, the ever-present smell, many Wright County natives are strangely insulated from the scandal in their backyard. Since all DeCoster eggs are shipped out to larger urban distributors, no one in Clarion, paradoxically, could buy its eggs. The closest store that stocks them, I was told, is Fareway, in Eagle Creek (which last week, conspicuously, had no egg specials in its four-page color coupon bulletin). In the Wright County Monitor, the recall story appeared below the fold; the top story was Iowa Governor Chet Culver's recent visit.
Before I left town, I stopped by the DeCoster Farms corporate office on Route 69. It's a small brick building, dwarfed in size by the animal confinements, and it flies three flags at full mast on the roof: one is the American, one is the Iowan, and one is white with a blood-red crucifix. In the parking lot, one car had liberal bumper stickers for Obama/Biden and the ecumenical "Coexist"—edgy choices for a notoriously born-again corporate climate in which a manager once alleged that Jack DeCoster personally fired him for being atheist. Inside was a small waiting room with a row of chairs and a door unlockable only by security code.
I knocked and asked to speak with Peter DeCoster, who was listed in the directory, and was asked to sit and wait. There were flyers on the wall that announced, "Our hiring policy is simple—we follow the law!" After twenty minutes, I was given a printed press release, and the door was shut and locked again. I drove home past the silent, giant barns.