The nation's largest producer of brown-shelled eggs, a prosyletizing born-again New Englander, has decended on tiny Kent County, leaving behind battles over beetles that infested the town near his plant in Maine, disputes over child labor, union organizing drives and citations for safety violations.
But the leaders of Maryland's least-populated county, anxious to draw agribusiness into their Eastern Shore economy, have uttered hardly a word about the newcomer's controversial past.
In fact, to assure that Austin "Jack" DeCoster's egg business would come here, they agreed in July to float an $8.5 million low-interest bond issue he needed to build his Maryland plant.
Armed with that commitment, DeCoster promptly sold his entire business for $17.2 million to a large conglomerate.
DeCoster, a 45-year-old-self-made millionaire, will stay on to manage the operation for the new owners. The sudden sale, which had been in the works secretly for months, has given county leaders only temporary pause.
Kent officials and the local newspaper are aware of DeCoster's troubles in Maine. Reluctant to stir a controversy they fear could cancel the whole deal, they haven't shared them with the citizenry in public hearings or published stories, however.
They have focused instead on DeCoster's promise of up to 200 new jobs in a county with only 16,900 people, and on the prospect of a large new market for Kent corn and soybeans needed to feed one million egg-laying hens.
"Destined to serve the Lord," by his account, DeCoster began with 150 hens in 1949. Over three decades, he built a $47.8-million-a-year egg empire in his home town of Turner, Maine.His company is the nation's second largest overall egg producer and its largest producer of brown eggs.
DeCoster's success has been the subject of a favorable cover story in The Poultry Tribune, an industry magazine. Less flattering articles about his firm have appeared in Maine newspapers, notably in the muckraking Maine Times and, to a lesser extent, in the Lewiston-Auburb dailies.
DeCoster does not contest the essential facts as reported but alleges that the stories contained only "half truths." The defense is new. Until recently, DeCoster was a reclusive figure who, his production manager says, "should have done more PR . . ."
Faced with what his production manager likened to an Alfred Hitchcock tale, DeCoster could say only that the extent of the brown bettle problem afflicting Turner, Maine, was exaggerated.
The beetles were supposed to control flies on chicken manure. "We didn't know these beetles would leave the (manure) houses," DeCoster told The Washington Post. "We didn't do anything to kill or control them until we got into what you call the beetle problem."
The problem, for DeCoster, includes a $5 million lawsuit filed by 27 townspeople in June. "People found thousands of bugs in their houses crawling on their curtains," said Coleman Conyne, a lawyer for the residents. c"They don't bite but they get into dishes, cups cereals, insulation. They are aesthetically repulsive."
The Maine papers duly noted that DeCoster had constructed new hen houses without the required permits, had failed to erect adequate guard shields around machinery, hadn't corrected improper electrical wiring until cited by government inspectors.
DeCoster's truck drivers had falsified their logs to show they had worked no more than the federal limit when, in fact, they were driving long hours to get the eggs to the big city markets, the papers reported. The firm paid $16,500 in fines in 1975 and 1976 for these safety infractions, which DeCoster blamed the other week on his firm's inability to handle its own rapid growth.
"We had pressure on us to get eggs delivered but we didn't have the wisdom," he said.
DeCoster was targeted by the meat cutters and teamsters unions, but both failed to win elections in 1976. Last November another group of 27 workers was fired after walking off the job to protest wages and working conditions.
A Maine judge ordered the workers rehired in the same jobs and barred DeCoster from "interfering with or restraining" their union activites.
Lee Bouton, a rank-and-file leader, quit DeCoster in February "because people were too afraid. Even these who wore (union) pins were harassed," he said.
In the interview with The Post, DeCoster said he opposes unions "in the production of farm commodities" because their presence would result in "some awfully-high-priced food. Where else can it come from? The businessman's not a sponge."
There were also reports of high turnover -- conceded by DeCoster -- and of young teenagers being injured on the job. Reacting to such reports about DeCoster's operation, Maine lawmakers voted in May to ban child labor involving "hazardous machinery" in the processing of farm products. DeCoster went on record against the bill, arguing that no problem existed to warrant its passage.
"Jack is very, very disheartened," a DeCoster employe was quoted as saying at a Maine legislative hearing this spring. "He doesn't think the State of Maine appreciates what he has done. And as you probably know, he's building just as fast as he can down in Maryland right now."
"We didn't leave Maine because we disliked Maine," DeCoster said in his Maryland office. "Maryland is a good place to produce eggs because of its nearness to the grain (feed) supply.Our company couldn't expand in Maines because of the cost of transporting the eggs . . ."
So earlier this year DeCoster contracted to buy a 425-acre farm near Millington in the county's eastern end and applied for permits to build a processing plant and 14 egg-laying houses. The key processing plant approval came after a hearing Feb. 1 at which there were 18 Kent residents recorded in favor, no protestors present and no questions asked about the business in Maine.
On the farm near Millington, DeCoster already has built one 522-foot-long building where 75,000 cackling hens lay more than 50,000 eggs each day. The eggs trvel on conveyor belts to one corner where three local women pack them in flat cartons.
Next door, the processing plant and another egg-laying house are well under construction.
"I've made lots of mistakes," DeCoster said in his office, a converted barn. "But obviously my batting average is pretty good."
If, in his view, he was treated unfairly in Maine, he has been lovingly courted in Maryland. "Nice place. (ice people," said DeCoster. He has moved his family into a rented houses on the Sassafras River and become very active in a "soul-winning" Baptist church here.
"I run on the Bible," he said, adding that prayer often has helped him solve vexing business problems.
"He's a good Christian fellow," said John Beiler, a Kent County crop duster active in the same church. "He's proven that a Christian man can still be a successful businessman and an asset to society."
The Delmarva peninsula is poultry country, but almost exclusively eating chickens are raised and then largely on the Lower Shore, as much as a hundred miles from Keny County.
DeCoster's Eggs is "what we want here in Kent County, exactly the type of industry we're looking for," County Commissioner Julian Lee Crew said at his feed store on Cross Street.
"We've wrestled with unemployment and lack of industry for quite a long time," said Commissioner Mary Roe Walkup. "We don't have top management types or a lot off highly skilled workers. This seems to be a pretty good match.
"We don't feel as if any of these complaints or rumors are worth pursuing," she said.
H. Hurtt Deringer, publisher-editor of the Kent County News, was instrumental in forwarding to local officials newspaper clippings from Maine but he has chosen to print almost nothing bout DeCoster's home town troubles. b
"I just don't take a muckraking or yellow-journalism approach," he said.
Besides, he said, as president of the Kent Chamber of Commerce, he wants to bring jobs to the county, which has an above-average 8.8 percent unemployment rate. "I feel an obligation to help," he said.
"To relieve conditions of unemloyment, to encourage the increase of industry and to promote the health, welfare and safety of the rsidents," according to the ordinance, the country commissioners agreed to the bond issue.
Unknown to them when they gave their initial approval in July, DeCoster was negotiating the sale to Acton, a Massachusetts corporation active in snack foods and cable television. The sale was announced in late August. County commissioners knew even less about Acton then about DeCoster.
They instructed their hand-picked economic development advisory board to learn what it could about both.
"We checked it out from a to z," said board Chairman T. AllanStradley. He said the board's investigation entailed phone calls to Maine, "to business people primarily." There were no calls to government agencies or worker groups.
Following a private meeting with DeCoster and an Acton executive Sept. 24, Stradley wrote the county commissioners. "We discussed all aspects of the proposed egg operation and all our questions were answered to our satisfaction . . ." $"That made us more secure," said Commissioner Crew. "It should be a real fine operation up there, we hope."