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DeCoster never welcomed by Iowa pig industry

08/24/2010 @ 11:39am Executive Editor, Successful Farming

I pulled up my Pork Powerhouses file on Jack DeCoster this morning, since he is making national news due to salmonella contamination in eggs from his Iowa farms. I first heard of DeCoster 16 years ago when I was collecting data for my Pork Powerhouses report, an annual ranking of the largest pork producers in the U.S., published in Successful Farming magazine. At that time, one of my trusted sources in the hog industry told me an egg producer from Maine with a record of environmental violations was buying land in Iowa and planning to build sow farms. “Watch him,” I was told.

By 1995, DeCoster had several 3,400-sow units under construction in north-central Iowa, and industry insiders were buzzing.

One of his breeding stock suppliers told me: “He plays the part of a dummy, looks and talks like Elmer Fudd, but it’s all a front.”

An Iowa feed supplier said: “Jack doesn’t care what anyone thinks, unless it hurts his pocket book. I used to meet him for lunch and he would say a prayer before the meal, ask everyone to bow their heads. Then when he was done he would immediately start beating on everybody to lower the price of feed and supplies.”

A grain dealer summed him up this way: “DeCoster is a rich man who likes to intimidate people.”

A barn construction source told me: “DeCoster will run rough shod over anything in his way, which is not always bad in a business, but he is a liability to the hog industry.”

By 1997, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources was investigating DeCoster for manure violations on several farms. I was invited to see the installation of a new manure lagoon at a DeCoster sow farm on August 7, 1997, near Clarion, Iowa. Jack DeCoster’s son, Peter, was running the operation. He told me that day, “It’s a joke to think all the problems we have nobody else has. We try to do everything right, 100%. I’m not saying we never make a mistake. Our goal is to have topnotch quality installations.”

I asked how his dad felt about the negative publicity in Iowa. “He tries not to focus on it,” said Peter. “His goals are with the business and production. You can’t let it bother you.”

I interviewed Peter DeCoster again on August 4, 1998, the last time he returned my calls. He reported that DeCoster Farms of Iowa had 18,200 sows in production in Iowa. He was frustrated with the negative press the family seemed to get. “We sell newspapers, so they like to report on us,” he said. “We had a successful year last year with no manure application problems and just one leak near Osceola.”

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