|By JANE HOUIN
CROTON, Ohio — In the latest in a string of confrontations between the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and Ohio Fresh Eggs, LLC, the state’s largest egg producer plans to appeal the ODA’s proposed action to revoke all permits issued to Ohio Fresh Eggs for its 12 farms in Licking, Hardin and Wyandot counties.
The proposed action would revoke all permits issued to Ohio Fresh Eggs for the entire Croton egg farm, which includes four layer sites, four pullet sites and a hatchery/breeder pullet site. In addition, ODA has proposed to revoke all permits issued to Ohio Fresh Eggs for the Mt. Victory egg farm and Goshen pullet farm located in Hardin County, and the Marseilles egg farm in Wyandot County.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Harry Palmer, an Ohio Fresh Eggs spokesperson. “We’re going to appeal this decision and have 30 days to do so.”
ODA proposed revoking the permits last week as a result of what was called false or misleading information in the permit applications. On the applications, Ohio Fresh Eggs was required to identify those who control management on the farm.
The applications failed to disclose that arrangements had been made for control by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, and he was not identified as a person associated with the facility requiring a background check of environmental noncompliance history.
If DeCoster’s identity had been disclosed, an investigation would have indicated a substantial history of noncompliance. In 2000, DeCoster was labeled a “habitual violator” of Iowa’s environmental laws, including manure runoff into waterways.
The label, which expired in 2004, made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms. Ohio Fresh Eggs had indicated there would be an anonymous purchaser with an option to buy the egg operation, but the ODA said, assurances were made that that person would not control the egg company’s management nor the selection of its officers, directors or managers.
Since that time, ODA learned DeCoster’s option to buy gave him the right to have a representative on the Ohio Fresh Eggs’ three-person management committee. That representative must approve the egg company’s annual budget and the hiring of any senior management employee.
“We have investigated the matter thoroughly,” said ODA Director Fred Dailey. “The consequences of this proposed action are very serious. If it is determined these permits were based on false or misleading information, Ohio law makes it very clear they must be revoked. This poultry farm deserves owners and operators that conduct themselves with integrity and honesty, and are committed to being good neighbors.”
Ohio’s rigorous permitting program, which regulates large livestock and poultry operations, includes investigating the compliance history of those applying for permits. The investigation is required to prevent a person with a history on noncompliance from controlling farms in Ohio. A complete investigation depends on an honest disclosure of the identity of those individuals in control.
According to Palmer, DeCoster engaged in an option agreement with Ohio Fresh Eggs in 2003, providing DeCoster an option to purchase a farm at sometime in the future when acceptable to all parties - DeCoster, Ohio Fresh Eggs, and the ODA.
“Our intent is to continue to manage and operate these farms in an effective and efficient manner,” Palmer said. “At this point, however, it’s out of our hands.”
If the permits are revoked, it could result in the removal of an estimated 8.5 million chickens from Ohio Fresh Eggs’ poultry complexes.
Ohio Fresh Eggs bought the former Buckeye Egg Farm in February 2004 after the company’s repeated run-ins with the state over environmental violations. Ohio Fresh Eggs has tried to clean up problems that plagued the former owners, including fly and rodent infestations, foul odors and polluted streams. But neighbors to the sites in Licking, Wyandot and Hardin counties have continued to complain about flies and manure owners.
In June, ODA fined Ohio Fresh Eggs $212,000 for failure to control insects and rodents, and in August an emergency order was issued to control flies and repair water leaks at its Croton hen barns.
Ohio Fresh Eggs’ grain handling license for the Croton and LaRue facilities are not included within the proposed revocation of permits, said Dailey.
The planned appeal would be hear by an independent hearing officer, usually an attorney selected by ODA.
Ohio Fresh Eggs is owned and operated by Ohio Ag Investors, LLC, owned by Don Hershey, and Hillandale Farms, Inc., owned by Orland Bethel. The company employs approximately 255 employees, according to Palmer.
Ohio’s poultry industry has a production value of more than $510 million, and it is the fastest-growing sector of animal agriculture, according to the Ohio Poultry Assoc. More than 5,000 people are employed in the poultry industry with payrolls of more than $50 million.