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.