Maine, Iowa egg producer separates business, charity work
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Friends and colleagues say Austin "Jack" DeCoster, owner of an Iowa egg farm at the heart of a massive salmonella recall, is at once a stubborn and "ruthless" businessman and a community benefactor who shares his wealth and counsels inmates about Christianity.
Detractors point to business-related troubles including environmental violations, harassment claims and allegations of animal cruelty against his company. Others express admiration for the work ethic of a man who inherited 200 hens when he was just a child and built a vast operation with farms in three states.
"He did this alone," said childhood friend Ralph Caldwell. "No one left him $2 million to start with. He had bills to start with, not money."
DeCoster, 75, has been invited to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce committee investigating the recall. Company spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell said he plans to attend the hearing. She also said DeCoster and his family are not granting interviews.
The committee has asked DeCoster to come prepared to explain why his facilities tested positive for salmonella contamination hundreds of times in the two years before this summer's outbreak, which has sickened up to 1,500 people, and whether he shared the results with food safety officials. His company says it already has provided some positive results to federal officials and will continue to do so.
DeCoster hasn't made any public statements since his northern Iowa farm, Wright County Egg, was implicated in the outbreak and recalled 380 million eggs. Another Iowa business, Hillandale Farms, also recalled millions of eggs after being linked to the outbreak.
DeCoster's business, which he started in Maine before adding operations in Iowa and Ohio, has seen trouble before.
Officials in Maine and Iowa fined him for repeated environmental problems in the 1990s, and in 2000 Iowa designated him a habitual violator of environmental rules, the only time the state has instituted the label. Iowa banned DeCoster from starting or expanding any other animal feed operations, but he opened new farms with colleagues' help and took ownership after the state's ban expired.
DeCoster agreed in 2002 to pay $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by female employees who claimed sexual harassment and assault at an Iowa farm DeCoster owned. The company implemented anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies at its operations and agreed to hold training programs about workplace issues.
In 2003, DeCoster pleaded guilty in federal court in Iowa to knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and was sentenced to five years probation. In 2007, 51 illegal workers at six DeCoster farms in Iowa were arrested but no further action was taken against DeCoster. Earlier this year, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, paid $125,000 to settle an animal cruelty case.
People who know DeCoster say there's more to the man than his litany of business problems.
"He's a born again Baptist and a ruthless businessman," said Caldwell, who has known DeCoster for most of his life. "As a human being, if it isn't part of the business, he's a pretty level guy."
Caldwell, 67, of Turner, Maine, said DeCoster started in the poultry business at age 12 or 13, after his father died. By the time he graduated from high school, he'd grown the operation from 200 hens to nearly 10,000.
Caldwell said DeCoster built a three-story chicken house and hauled grain on his back to the third level, then hauled the eggs back down again.
"He fell asleep in the packing room at night where he would sandpaper eggs to make them clean," Caldwell said.
As his wealth grew, DeCoster became philanthropic.
"If you want a ball field built in this town, give him a holler and he'd build it for you, have a bulldozer brought out and not send you a bill," Caldwell said. He said DeCoster helped pay for the construction of Calvary Baptist Church in Turner and furnished the church with buses.
In Iowa, DeCoster also has donated money for a hospital and assisted living development, a library renovation project, a new aquatic center and improvements in downtown Clarion, such as extra lighting, benches and flower containers, according to Dennis Bowman, director of Wright County Economic Development.
DeCoster's company is not publicly traded, meaning his net worth isn't readily available, but Bowman estimated DeCoster and his family have donated about $1 million to local projects.
George Regan, a Boston public relations consultant who previously worked for DeCoster, said he once recommended DeCoster publicize his charitable activities.
"And he said 'If you have to publicize a good deed, it's not a good deed,'" Regan said.
Regan acknowledged some of the wounds DeCoster's suffered "have been self-inflicted."
"He can be stubborn and very head strong, very opinionated, but he's also an incredibly bright guy," Regan said.
The stubbornness has frustrated some, including Bill Drury, a Wright County corn and soybean farmer who served on the county's soil and water board. Drury recalled that the panel had sent multiple letters to DeCoster, offering help in site selection and manure management for a proposed egg farm.
"But he refused all correspondence and refused to cooperate with us," Drury said.
Bowman said many Wright County residents try to differentiate the businessman from the neighbor.
"One is personal and one has to do with business, and what he does from a benevolent standpoint," Bowman said.
For others it's not quite that simple.
"It's hard for people to have a conversation and not talk about both sides," said Lucas Beenken, chairman of the Wright County Board of Supervisors. "He's done a good job of contributing to the community but it's hard not to talk about the problems he's had.
"You can talk about a successful business but there is an asterisk on the problems."