*** Given that DeCoster and his shoddy practices are once more in the news here in Maine, and soon abroad, I felt it pertinent to put this piece from my thesis where others could access it. If you would like to cite this written piece for any reason – article, blog post, or personal interest – please feel free to contact me! ***
An Example of CAFOs Close to Home: DeCoster Egg Farms
Since the growth of CAFOs, many family farms have had to close their doors due to lack of income as more and more people developed a taste for cheap prices and would not pay the price for local food. Other farms and homesteads were forced to close due to towns changing their regulations, as townsfolk no longer saw the need for farms to exist nearby. Richardson’s Farm was one of those affected by the latter. For years Richardson’s Farm was located on the stretch between the town of Rumford, Maine, and a cluster of houses were built further down the road, years after the farm had been established, including one of the homes I lived in during my childhood. Growing up, I thought that that those living in the mill town had forgotten the necessity of farms as people living near Richardson’s farm shared comments about hoping not to get stuck behind those “damn cows.” Complaints came forth every spring from those living out past the farm about the smell of manure spread out into the pastures, especially from the mill workers who looked down on farmers who made less than they did.
Despite the complaints from those in town, having lived near Richardson’s Farm, I can’t recall ever seeing a sick or lame cow. They were always out in the fields, grazing contently, drinking water provided from a brook on the property, and relaxing in the shade from trees strategically left in the pasture. The smell was the sweet scent of well composted manure that had been stored correctly, not that of the manure pits or bacteria infested barns that dot the landscape nationally. In my memory, Richardson’s Farm took care of their animals in a manner that many homesteaders and small-scale farmers do today. They seemed to do things right: happy animals, no over crowding, and a knowledge of how to deal naturally with waste created by the bovines.
In contrast to the fine example of Richardson’s Farm is DeCoster Egg Farms, one of Maine’s most disturbing cases of CAFO owners simply not caring about the well being of their animals or consumers. Unfortunately this is an example well known to many Mainers. The tales of DeCoster Egg Farms are a piece of Maine agricultural history recent enough to shape the methods and goals of modern homesteaders, especially chicken owners.
Jack DeCoster, a native of Turner, Maine, ran his commercial egg production in Maine for over sixty years, and also owned farms in Iowa and Maryland. In September of 2010, there was a nationwide recall of eggs contaminated with salmonella, all of which came from his Iowa based hen houses. This was not the first time that DeCoster’s egg farms had made it into the news and it is just one of the many incidents involving DeCoster violations and lawsuits. Joe Fassler, a contributor to The Atlantic covered the story of DeCoster’s egg farms and put together a time-line of offenses committed by the company. Fassler wrote:
What emerged from my interviews and research is a pattern of offenses – a stubborn, company-wide refusal to abide by regulations, no matter how many times DeCoster was caught and no matter how many times Maine’s alert litigators tried to force constraints on a chronically law-breaking mogul.
Many of the incidents here – aside from the major national stories like the historic OSHA fine – have not been reported on since they first happened. Some of the smaller infractions have never been reported in the national press, and some have not been reported at all. Tracking DeCoster’s history of past offenses is no easy task.i
DeCoster had a habit of waiting to see how far a lawsuit would go before settling out of court before a verdict could be reached.
In order to establish that DeCoster’s in Turner, Maine, was and is a CAFO, one only has to look at the first minimum wage law which was essentially created to regulate DeCoster’s business practices. In 1975, Maine’s Majority Leader in the State Legislature proposed legislation meant to force DeCoster to pay his workers the minimum wage. While most agricultural companies in Maine are exempt from paying minimum wage, this new law created an “exemption from the exemption” in which any farm that has more than 300,000 laying birds would have to pay minimum wage to its workers.ii So many birds in a limited sized facility means that these chickens were packed into such confinement as to be unsanitary, unhealthy, and emotionally scarring animals due to the lack of fresh air, sunshine, and freedom of movement.
In addition to accusations of animal abuse and unfair working conditions, the list of lawsuits brought against DeCoster’s company read as one large example of the pest issues previously mentioned regarding concentrated animal feeding operations. In 1980, the fly problem around DeCoster’s facility became so severe that people living in the vicinity could no longer use the outdoor spaces around their homes. Despite constant complaints to town and federal representatives, nothing was done. In Fassler’s opinion, it appeared as though DeCoster’s big tax dollars were a boon in the eyes of regulators and no one wanted to get in his way. Fly and odor problems continued. In 1987, a February fire killed over 100,000 birds, making the situation difficult to ignore. Normally the carcasses would be buried in a mass pit to decompose, but DeCoster decided to leave the birds in the open. By May, three months after the fire, the odors were so strong that neighbors had no choice but to sue DeCoster and force his company to properly dispose of the bodies.iii
DeCoster showed his lack of concern as he continued unsanitary practices at his poultry farms. In 2002, neighbors sued DeCoster farms for a second time for “lack of quality of life,” claiming that they were suffering due to the farm’s lack of cleanliness. Twenty-seven neighbors were annoyed with the stench and the flies from the CAFO. Finally the courts forced DeCoster to clean up storage sheds full of dead chickens and manure. He was required to install fans in the chicken houses’ manure pits to dry the sewage in order to help gain control of the fly population. When journalist Fassler spoke to the neighbors in 2010, only a few saw a marked difference in the fly population, leaving one to wonder if DeCoster kept his end of the settlement.iv
In 2009, the animal rights group Mercy for Animals arranged for an undercover reporter to document conditions at Quality Egg in Turner, Maine, DeCoster’s re-named egg farm. The undercover reporter caught numerous animal abuse cases on film. The video, which was posted online, showed workers killing birds by swinging them by their necks, kicking wounded birds into manure pits where they slowly died, and throwing live birds into the trashcans to suffocate. Cages were badly overstuffed. These are only a few of the abuses caught on the film. Maine State Veterinarian Don Hoenig filed suit against DeCoster, and insisted that the facility bring in more oversight, hire poultry experts to oversee animal husbandry, and mandate animal sensitivity training for plant workers. An out of court settlement may have modified or canceled those changes as no direct evidence about the outcome of the court case is readily available.v
The DeCoster animal abuse case is well-known as the videos are posted on the internet in a very public form.vi The cases of salmonella outbreaks remained more hidden as many occurred before the prolific use of the internet and social media. The first connection between salmonella and DeCoster came in 1988. After three outbreaks of the illness, five-hundred hospitalizations, and eleven deaths, salmonella-tainted eggs were traced back to DeCoster farms in Maryland and Maine. DeCoster had to dispose of over 200,000 contaminated hens. The most recent outbreak of tainted eggs came in August of 2010 when 550,000 eggs were linked to two DeCoster owned facilities in Iowa. Iowa barns run by DeCoster looked similar to those in Turner before Maine enforced regulations: “unsafe electrical conditions, improperly kept manure, infestations of mice and maggots and flies, sick hens.”vii
These CAFOs highlight problems existing in mass animal husbandry. There is a severe lack of pollution control, and problematic pests and pathogens run rampant. Unfortunately there are non-homesteaders who have difficulty in differentiating between CAFO based problems and the lack of similar issues with homesteads. Education is necessary in order for people to learn where and how their meat is raised. Those who have never set foot in a CAFO, watched videos of commercial agriculture online, or read any of the treaties on the modern agricultural models would have no idea about the state that the animal lives in before being slaughtered. On that same note, without visiting local homesteads and talking to the homesteaders about how they raise their animals, people assume that animals grown on the homestead are grown in similar conditions as those raised in CAFOs, but on a smaller scale. Instead, those who recall DeCoster’s and other images of CAFOs that have been shared by the media, attempt to restrict homesteads and limit them only to extreme rural areas, unintentionally limiting their community’s food security through town ordinances limiting gardens and animal husbandry. Dispelling the myth that homestead animals and CAFO animals are treated the same requires that the public learn about the differences between CAFOs and homesteads.
i Joe Fassler, “Timeline of Shame: Decades of DeCoster Egg Factory Violations,” The Atlantic, September 2010, Health, accessed September 8, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/09/timeline-of-shame-decades-of-decoster-egg-factory-violations/63059/
vi The video posted to the YouTube website on March 24, 2009, by Mercy For Animals can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dOauM9LNTc. This video captured the multiple cases of animal abuse happening at DeCoster’s factory farm, Quality Egg of New England (QENE) in Turner, Maine.