From the Archives: The Egg Baron's Last Stand
Editor’s note: Last week, a massive fire killed an undetermined number of chickens at Trillium Farms, the latest chapter in the colorful history of the Licking County agricultural operation once known as Buckeye Egg Farm. Back in 2000, Columbus Monthly dug into its complicated history under its founder, German national Anton Pohlmann, known as the “Egg Baron,” who sold the business in 2003 under pressure from regulatory authorities.
Lobdell Creek begins tenuously in a farm field near Croton, in Licking County, without any apparent source. At its origin, the creek is little more than a low point in a field where surface runoff collects. A couple shovelfuls of dirt could cut it short by a foot or two. But as it weaves its way south toward Johnstown, through acres of farmland, it gains a little respect. Within a mile, it would take a good leap to cross it. Farther still, it's wide enough to swallow many an errant shot from the No. 8 fairway at Hillcrest Golf Course and, after a heavy rain, stout enough to submerge the greens on both No. 8 and No.9.
By the time Lobdell Creek reaches its conclusion, some 15 miles from its meager beginning, and empties into Raccoon Creek just east of Alexandria, it's become the namesake for Lobdell Reserve, a 250-acre Licking Park District nature preserve highlighted by the 80-foot slate cliffs through which Lobdell Creek, now almost 20 feet wide, has cut a swath.
To many, however, Lobdell is the creek that died last summer.
Ray Hershberger was the first to notice. Hershberger is the caretaker at Tech Lake, a private, 100-acre facility for employees of a Johnstown manufacturing firm, bisected by the meandering Lobdell Creek. “It's a lovely place," says Hershberger. "I love nature, and it's very nice here. If you've seen it, you understand why I'm never home."
On June 1, 1999, however, he discovered that his slice of nature had been tarnished. Lobdell Creek had been contaminated, turned, he says, into sludge. “When the water flowed over the rocks, it was almost slow. And smelled? Oh, my goodness. It almost instantly made me half sick.”
But what really made his heart sink was watching the life of the creek being choked out right before his eyes. “I could see fish trying to swim," he says, “and then 15 or 20 seconds later, they'd turn belly up."
Hershberger instantly knew what had contaminated the creek—chicken manure. And he knew the culprit—the infamous Buckeye Egg Farm. Hershberger called the authorities. “I'm not a rabble-rouser. If they mind their p's and q's over there, I have no problem with them," he says. “But this was sick. I mean, we're two miles down the road from them, for heaven's sake. They'd have had to feed it for hours to have that amount of manure this far down.”
Actually, Tech Lake was more like four miles from the source of the spill, as Lobdell flows, and by the time Hershberger had discovered it, nearly four days had passed since the manure began leaking out of Barn No. 18 at Pullet Site No. 4 south of Benner Road, near the trickling origin of Lobdell Creek.
The spill's toll on the Lobdell ecosystem was severe. According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, nearly 6,000 fish, frogs, crayfish and tadpoles were killed.
The spill was Buckeye's second in barely a month. On April 29, 1999, some 2,000 gallons of liquid fertilizer leaked from a holding tank, seeped into a nearby catch basin that led to a drainage ditch and, ultimately, dumped into Raccoon Creek. Six wildlife officers waded a 15-mile stretch of Raccoon Creek for two days counting dead fish before reaching their final total: 11,581.
For or almost 20 years, residents around Johnstown and the neighboring townships of northwestern Licking County have endured overpowering and offensive byproducts of Buckeye Egg Farm—the flies, the smells and the spills—while the owner of this empire, Anton Pohlmann, sat at home in Germany hatching plans for more chickens, more land and more profits, unreachable and seemingly unresponsive to the pleas for mercy from his Ohio neighbors.
Disgruntled residents began to organize, combining their voices in a constant volley of complaints leveled against both the egg farm and the Ohio EPA, which is authorized by Ohio law to regulate the state's megafarms, but instead seemed almost an accomplice, approving Buckeye's plans for expansion with rubber-stamp regularity while exhibiting the corrective authority of an indulgent parent. Buckeye Egg Farm had become Ohio's largest agricultural operation. And that wasn't all good.
As the egg farm grew, so, too, did the problems. The smells of manure—acidic smells that burned the throat as well as the nose—grew worse. The flies multiplied, as one health inspector said, "to Biblical proportions." The manure spills became more frequent
By the mid 1990s, the state's biggest farming operation had become its biggest farming nightmare. Reports of salmonella infected eggs and migrant workers living in squalor and working in peril brought the wrath of the FDA, USDA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And Pohlmann's troubles weren't confined to Ohio. While the federal inspectors flocked to Croton, Pohlmann was sitting in jail in his native country facing a series of animal cruelty and occupational endangerment charges after poisoning millions of hens at his German operations—an offense for which he was banned from ever owning livestock in Germany again.
With the two spills last summer, it seemed Ohio had finally had enough as well. One day after Ray Hershberger's disheartening discovery, the response came from the top, and it was terse and direct: “I am fed up with the continuing violations on this farm," said Gov. Bob Taft in a statement. He then ordered the EPA to take "aggressive action to assure clean-up and to prevent reoccurrence.”
EPA director Chris Jones responded by calling in Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery, and a barrage of court actions have followed—actions that may threaten to regulate and penalize Buckeye Egg Farm right out of existence. "Of all the cases I've dealt with in all my years as attorney general, I can say unequivocally that I have not dealt with a company this recalcitrant," says Montgomery.
• Since December, the attorney general has levied a 27-count lawsuit against Buckeye and Anton Pohlmann personally, packed with requests for punitive damages, which is set for trial Oct. 2. Montgomery also has secured two consent orders on preliminary injunctions, in which the egg farm agreed to take specified measures to prevent more spills of manure and other contaminants.
• The state, however, has since charged that Buckeye Egg Farm violated those agreements numerous times, which provoked contempt-of-court motions on four different occasions.
• A third preliminary injunction went before Licking County Common Pleas Court Judge Gregory Frost in April, and he ruled that negligence on Buckeye's part was directly responsible for a massive outbreak of flies last February.
• Finally the state, fearing this mountain of litigation could bury Buckeye Egg Farm financially, filed an attachment motion in June in an attempt to freeze the egg farm's assets to ensure its ability to pay for damages and cleanup. The judge denied the motion.
Buckeye CEO Bill Glass acknowledges, “If we're asked to do all that the state's asked us to do, it would be devastating."
"I gave them a chance and it was not rewarded,” says Montgomery. “We've tried to work with them. We've had voluntary agreements with them. But time frames were not met. Orders were violated. I don't want to be a cowboy, with guns a-blazin'. But I really think it's a question of will here. And the message I want to send is, 'You won't wear us down.’ "
Little more than three miles separate Johnstown from Croton. The land is desert-flat, bisected by roads with compound names like Jacob White, Westley Chapel and Crouse Willson, laid out in a typical colonial grid. This is Buckeye Egg Farm territory, where rows of faded green-and-white barns, each stretching nearly the length of two football fields, are tucked into a pocket of rural Licking County.
The barns are grouped into eight distinct clusters scattered along these long, straight roads, clusters with names like Laying Site No. 4, or Pullet Site No. 3. Even the “Plant Entrance" signs near each complex seem to indicate something more industrial than agricultural. This is not your grandfather's farm.
Inside these 85 barns, tucked in this three-square-mile corner of the county, are more than 7.5 million birds, crammed onto an area about the size of a tight 18-hole golf course. The hens are stacked in wire cages, six birds to a cage, almost 90,000 birds per barn. Here, the birds spend their entire lives, which is little more than 18 months, moved from Buckeye's hatchery to one of 21 pullet houses (a pullet is an immature hen), where they stay for 20 weeks, until they are of laying age. Then they're moved to one of the 64 laying houses, where they'll produce about four eggs per week for the next year, until their optimum laying days expire and they're sold to a meat processing plant to be made into chicken soup or some other byproduct. That is, if they don't die from stress, heat or illness first, as many do.
This is just half of Buckeye Egg Farm's operation. There are three smaller facilities just north of Marion: a 14-barn complex in Mount Victory housing 2.5 million laying hens; a 16-barn complex in Marseilles housing 3.3 million laying hens, and two five barn pullet sites in LaRue housing 2.25 million young hens.
Collectively, Buckeye's birds lay enough eggs every day to make a sunny side up that would stretch from Cincinnati to Detroit. Ohio leads the nation in egg production and Buckeye Egg Farm is the state's leader—nearly four times larger than its closest competitor. Its 11.5 million laying hens produce 6.5 million eggs each day, nearly 2.4 billion eggs each year, supplying more than 3 percent of all the eggs consumed in the U.S.
This is Anton Pohlmann's empire. Known both here and in Europe as the Egg Baron, Pohlmann began his enterprise from scratch in postwar West Germany. He was the second of six children, born July 12, 1939, in Lohne, Germany. According to German court documents, Pohlmann studied to become a baker after attending elementary school, but found a better source of income as a chicken sorter, enabling him to stow away his proverbial nest egg. In 1960, at the age of 21, he started his first chicken farm with 10,000 birds. Pohlmann's business grew steadily and soon included several mixed feed and egg product companies and numerous satellite egg farms tucked between the Weser and Ems rivers in northwestern Germany. By the end of the 1970s, Pohlmann had become a wealthy man, owning nearly a quarter of the German egg market and about 2 percent of the entire European market. He began to set his sights on distant shores, and the Land of Opportunity.
Pohlmann, who did not respond to interview requests, targeted Central Ohio because of its accessibility to consumers, the availability of land and a steady supply of feed grain. He began buying land around Croton in 1979, and he persuaded Don Hershey and Richard McGrath, operators of a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, egg farm, to oversee his Ohio operations. On Oct. 2, 1980, the Ohio EPA received a permit application from the Hershey Equipment Company to build two five-barn pullet sites and two 12-barn layer sites, with a total capacity of nearly three million chickens, for a new company called Buckeye Egg Farm.
Pohlmann added continuously to his blossoming American egg enterprise, buying neighboring farms as they became available, and wallpapering the EPA offices with Permit to Install (PT) applications. In September 1981, he asked to build two new layer barns and a new pullet barn. In July 1982, another PTI was approved for the addition of two new 14-barn layer sites and two new five-barn pullet sites—essentially doubling the capacity of the egg farm to 7 million hens.
Things were changing quickly in western Licking County, and not everyone appreciated the change. This conspicuous German, with his broken English, was now the county's largest landowner, bulldozing the homes of former neighbors, dragging large stands of trees out by their roots. "Even if they did everything right—which they certainly don't—they'd still be a problem with me because of what they've done to my community," says 73-year-old Dan Perkins, who has lived on the same 200-acre farm since 1948. His home now sits a few hundred yards from 1.2 million chickens at Laying Site No. 2. "They've raped this community, stripped it of all its local color. He didn't preserve a single landmark, and now it's just prairie," says Perkins. "The Longabergers, they give back. Wexner gives back. But Anton Pohlmann has done nothing but suck the blood out of this community.”
But razing farmhouses and bulldozing trees was only the beginning. Residents would soon enough discover that having a massive egg farm as a neighbor had other drawbacks. And most, in one way or another, were caused by the most common chicken byproduct. It wasn't eggs.
According to recent court documents, more than 140,000 tons of chicken manure is being produced each year by Buckeye Egg Farm's 15 million hens at its facilities in Licking, Hardin and Wyandot counties. The chicken manure is removed from the barns once a year, and then spread over thousands of acres of surrounding farmland, worked into the soil as a nitrogen rich fertilizer.
The forced-air design of Buckeye's high-rise-style barns is intended to turn the naturally runny manure into a dry, almost mulchlike consistency as it sits in the eight-foot-deep concrete pits that run under the chicken pens. Properly dried manure doesn't smell as bad and isn't likely to seep out of the barn and into surrounding creeks. It also isn't a conducive breeding ground for flies and other insect pests. Buckeye's barns, however, have had a constant problem with wet manure, caused primarily by leaky drip lines that deliver water to the chickens, turning the manure into a souplike consistency that provides an ideal breeding ground for flies, and makes the substance nearly impossible to contain.
It didn't take long for Buckeye Egg Farm to begin annoying its neighbors, with the foul smells carried by the breeze for miles, the constant barrage of flies and the steady truck traffic, shuttling eggs from Croton to the world. The trucks crumbled the country roads underneath their weight, racking up thousands of dollars in repair bills for the financially strapped townships—all of which, as a whole, meant lower property values for area homeowners.
“Imagine having a graduation party, or a family get-together," says Buckeye neighbor Dan Perkins. "Lots of people bought homes out here so they could have a nice big yard, to play volleyball or have a picnic. But then that putrid smell hits. And you look on the table and the flies are holding a convention on the potato salad. It's disgusting. We're prisoners in our own homes."
The egg farm, however, says many of these drawbacks are the price of doing business, and one rural residents should expect. Farms attract flies. Livestock produces odors. It doesn't matter if it's 100 dairy cows or 15 million chickens. In the egg business, it's economy of scale that keeps prices low.
"No one is out kicking and screaming when a new Wal-Mart opens, putting smaller hardwares and five-and-dimes out of business," says Buckeye Egg Farm CEO Bill Glass. “Those consumers want their product at the cheapest price possible. We're producing an animal protein—eggs and animal waste is a function we have to deal with. Disposing of that is part of the process, and land applying it has traditionally been the method used. It has a certain value as a rich fertilizer, and can actually offset the use of compound chemical fertilizers. But not many people are pointing that out."
There were bigger problems, too. On July 9, 1983, a massive manure spill leeched into Otter Creek; a fork of the Licking River, killing nearly 150,000 fish and other aquatic species. The state filed a lawsuit on behalf of the EPA and the Division of Wildlife, and a judge ultimately fined Croton Egg Farm $150,000. And there were fires—large fires, attributed to faulty wiring in the barns' exhaust fans that killed thousands of chickens at a time. Four fires broke out between 1983 and 1987, including a massive blaze in March 1987 that incinerated some 85,000 hens.
But not everyone was a critic. A symbiotic relationship developed between Buckeye Egg Farm and a number of area farmers, perhaps even a silent majority. Not even Pohlmann owns enough land to sop up all the manure generated by his millions of chickens, so the egg farm contracts with area farmers who agree to accept truckloads of the stuff as fertilizer. Often, the same farmers also sell grain back to Buckeye as feed for the chickens. “We buy about 220,000 bushels of corn a week, 11 million bushels a year," says Glass. “If you figure the yield is about 170 bushels per acre, we're pulling corn from 70,000 to 80,000 acres around Ohio.” Buckeye also buys 100,000 tons of soy meal from area farmers each year, and spends in excess of $28 million annually on grain. In addition, the egg farm employs 650 workers with an annual payroll, according to court documents, of approximately $15 million.
Local politicians knew enough not to jab at an operation that supports so many constituents. Even some of the local township trustees have sold grain to the egg farm. And according to its critics, the state's watchdog, the EPA, was little more than a lap dog.
In 1979—just as Pohlmann was attempting to set up shop in Croton—a law was passed that put the state's largest livestock operations, defined as Confined Animal Feeding Operations. (CAFOs), under the purview of the Ohio EPA. These so-called factory farms were required to have their waste-management plans approved by the EPA, known as a Permit to Install (PTI), before operation could begin.
The problem, according to many critics, was that the EPA was too lenient, approving PTIs that had no regulatory hook upon which to hang a punitive hat. “Consultants developed an art form of writing extremely vague permits with little enforceable language," says Richard Sahli, an attorney representing two citizens' groups with pending civil suits against Buckeye Egg Farm. Sahli, who also was the Ohio EPA's chief counsel from 1987 to 1991, adds that the EPA didn't have the staff to monitor these operations anyway. "The only time anyone realized they were in violation is when an environmental disaster occurred," he says.
The applicants, however, complained that the EPA was making up the rules as it went. "Here's the source of all the problems: a lack of formal rules that detail what's expected of an agricultural operation," says Tom Menke, a private consultant who represents—and writes applications for 90 percent of the CAFOs in Ohio, including Buckeye Egg Farm. "Over the years, they've run into many issues where there was no policy, and as these gray areas arise, they're forced to deal with the public outcry. They've tried to apply rules on the fly—no pun intended," Menke says. “And Buckeye is the poster child. It's huge, and provides a big target in an area where the opposition is organized. Anton has a foreign residency, and it's easier to make someone seem inhuman when they're not one of you. It's become kind of a feeding frenzy."
Through the 1980s and the early 1990s, this battle amounted to little more than a skirmish. Only a handful of CAFOS existed, and the EPA's agricultural growing pains were played out on an extremely small stage. But in this lax regulatory environment, Buckeye Egg Farm thrived and Pohlmann was the prime beneficiary.
Buckeye Egg Farm is a limited partnership, with Pohlmann as the limited partner, serving essentially as both the landlord—leasing all the land, buildings and equipment to the partnership—as well as the majority owner of the business. By law, a limited partner is limited in both input into the company's operations and in liability for the company's mistakes, while the minority owner, the managing general partner, is both responsible and liable for the operation of the business.
"I certainly don't pretend to know all of their financials, but as we've delved deeper, we've learned enough to know that $1 million a month was paid to Anton Pohlmann, at least until about a year and a half ago, when he started getting into trouble with us," says Montgomery. "He's stated he doesn't know how much money he has, but Anton has made his share of profit from this company, at a time when the company's infrastructure has been failing. His goal was to have as many chickens as he can, to produce as many eggs as he can, make as much money as he can, and then, whatever's left over, he'll try to comply with the state: And the longer it goes the more egregious it gets."
Meanwhile, a procession of managing general partners paraded through. Five different managing partners have grabbed the egg farm's reigns in the past four years, and each, it seems, immediately issued a statement that went something like, “We've made mistakes in the past, but those days are over." Still, the problems persisted. “The life expectancy of a chief executive officer at Buckeye Egg Farm is about the same as one of its laying hens," says Austin Wildman, an attorney for Doucas Goranites, a former general partner who claimed, unsuccessfully, that Pohlmann violated the partnership agreement by managing the company.
Throughout the 1980s, while his Ohio egg empire was growing into one of the nation's largest, Pohlmann had remained in his native Germany, tending to his European egg dynasty. It, however, was compiling a track record for negligence, with serious citations dating to 1971, including stringent fines for marketing egg products without sufficient preliminary treatment, violating child-labor laws, breaking tax codes and water and air pollution laws. In February 1996, the German government lowered the boom.
Pohlmann was charged with utilizing an illegal nicotine-based pesticide, which nearly killed a worker who sprayed it. Pohlmann also exposed more than four million hens to the highly toxic chemical, causing "breathing difficulty and paranoia and persistent, considerable pain and suffering among the animals for a long period of time," the German decision reported, earning him the unflattering German moniker, "Tierqualer der Nation"—roughly, the cruelest animal abuser in the country.
In addition, the German judge found Pohlmann guilty of marketing nearly 7 million eggs tainted with traces of nicotine. Pohlmann spent five weeks in prison awaiting the verdict, in which he received a suspended two-year jail term and was fined 420 daily rates of 5,000 German marks each—a total equivalent to about $1 million. Perhaps the worst penalty, however, was that he was banned from ever owning livestock in Germany again. Soon thereafter, Pohlmann built a luxurious home in Central Ohio, secluded behind his opulent, 70-stall Hartford Farm riding stable, and became Croton's newest resident. His wife and teen-age daughter remained in Germany.
Things were no better for him here. In the fall of 1993, Pohlmann and his son, Marcus, bought out their former partners' shares of AgriGeneral (as Buckeye was called at the time), with Marcus becoming the managing general partner and his father remaining a limited partner. Almost immediately, the father-son partnership announced a proposed expansion: the three facilities in Hardin and Wyandot counties, near Marion, which ultimately again doubled the size of their egg empire to its current size of about 15 million hens.
Area residents, however, immediately began to organize into a unified opposition, fearing the same kind of nuisances Licking County critics had been howling about for a dozen years. Despite their efforts, the EPA approved Buckeye's expansion plans.
A year after the first Hardin County facility opened in 1995, nearby residents were assailing the EPA with complaints of fly infestations. In October 1996—one month after Marcus Pohlmann unexpectedly left the egg business—the EPA responded, fining AgriGeneral $128,000 for a number of environmental violations, including the pollution of McDonald Creek with wastewater from its egg-washing system, improper storage and composting of dead chickens and an "intolerable number of flies in private residences and businesses nearby," said then-EPA director Donald Schregardus.
The EPA, which critics once joked stood for, "Every Permit Approved," had decided, apparently, to crack down. It adopted a policy to increase public involvement with regard to those expansion requests or other PTIs that had a significant impact on the surrounding community, hosting public hearings in many cases. In 1997, the EPA also created an agricultural unit, designed specifically to get a better handle on the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations that were beginning to cause so much trouble.
The EPA wasn't the only government watchdog with Buckeye Egg Farm in its sights. In November 1996—a month after the EPA fine—the Ohio Department of Health found numerous violations of standing sewage, overcrowding, fly infestations and unapproved water systems at migrant-worker camps in both Hardin and Licking counties. Health inspectors said at least 51 migrant workers lived in seven Croton-area homes owned by the egg farm, with 19 more workers living in two LaRue-area houses. Buckeye ultimately elected to shut down its migrant-worker camps.
The Ohio Department of Health then notified the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which conducted its own investigation. On Aug. 18, 1997, it issued its findings: 15 violations and a proposed $1 million fine. OSHA alleged Buckeye Egg Farm was guilty of "forcing its employees to live and work under life-threatening conditions," citing 29 various safety and health violations. A year later, Buckeye Egg Farm agreed to a $425,000 settlement, which included requirements to improve working conditions.
There also were two class-action suits filed against Buckeye Egg Farm soon after Pohlmann's move to Croton. The first was filed in Toledo by more than 180 past and current AgriGeneral employees who claimed the company had failed to pay them deserved overtime wages. Buckeye eventually settled with the workers, agreeing to pay more than $112,000 in back wages. During the course of the suit's investigation, however, Mark Finegan, an attorney for the nonprofit Equal Justice Foundation, which represented the workers who filed the suit, uncovered the basis for a second suit. "While Mark was interviewing workers for the labor case, several of them mentioned an egg-rewash line, which the workers described as a very unpleasant task," says Amy Simpson of the Ohio Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).
The Ohio PIRG filed a second class-action suit in August 1997, claiming AgriGeneral was in violation of the Consumer Sales Practices Act, because the egg farm routinely rewashed and repackaged eggs that had not sold, marketing them with a new expiration date. According to the complaint, the repackaged eggs were sold to retailers including Kroger, Big Bear, Meijer, Sam's Club, Food Town and Giant Eagle. The suit, which is still pending in Lorain County Common Pleas Court, touched off a hailstorm of negative publicity, including a scathing April 1998 Dateline episode in which cameras were sent in undercover, allegedly showing the rewash taking place. The show also revealed the USDA actually allowed the repackaging of returned eggs that had been to market less than 30 days.
A day after the NBC news program aired, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped shipment of nearly 1.5 million eggs from Buckeye Egg Farm for an inspection. A week later, the USDA announced a new policy that prohibited the repackaging of eggs, but not before citing Buckeye with a number of violations, including shipments that exceeded the allowable tolerances for eggs that leaked, were cracked or dirty. In February 1999, Buckeye Egg Farm agreed to pay $180,000 to settle the USDA claims.
Then it was the Food and Drug Administration's turn. On Sept. 9, 1999, the FDA sent then-Buckeye CEO Elliot Jones a warning letter, stating that public health officials had linked a May 12 outbreak of salmonella in Massachusetts to brown eggs. “Our traceback of the implicated brown eggs lead to your site number 3 located at 11652 Clover Valley Road, Croton, Ohio, 43013," stated the letter, prompting an FDA inspection of the Croton facilities in July, where a number of other violations were revealed, including positive tests for salmonella in two separate barns at Site No. 3. The warning letter stated, "Your shell eggs have been prepared, packed or held under insanitary conditions whereby they may have been rendered injurious to health.” The letter cited dust-covered cobwebs, live hens in the manure pits, residue from crushed eggs, live beetles and flies "in quantities too numerous to count," and a 10-by-4-by-3-foot pile of dead chickens and eight trash containers full of dead chickens. It also referenced a 1998 inspection in which positive tests for salmonella were discovered in six barns. The warning letter gave Buckeye 15 days to remedy the infractions. The FDA has taken no action since then.
While the other agencies took swipes at Buckeye Egg Farm, the EPA wasn't sitting idly by. Just a month before the FDA inspectors arrived in Croton, caretaker Ray Hershberger was watching chicken manure float down Lobdell Creek, choking the life out of the fish swimming there. The EPA had seen enough. Years of wrist slapping had proved ineffectual. This game of chicken with Buckeye Egg was about to end: The state called in the attorney general. “We have tried repeatedly to work with this company for years to bring it into compliance," says John Kessler, who heads up the EPA's agricultural unit. "We've taken enforcement actions including fines and orders to correct. But there's been problem after problem. And after we believe we've exhausted our attempts to gain compliance, it's time to begin to pursue formal enforcement action through the attorney general's office."
Within a week of the Lobdell Creek spill, Betty Montgomery had secured a consent order, requiring Buckeye Egg Farm to take a number of steps to clean up its act. Unsatisfied with Buckeye's compliance, however, on Dec. 1 the state filed its 27 count lawsuit, and more actions have followed, actions that could threaten Buckeye Egg Farm's future.
Still, there is plenty of evidence to suggest the state's actions of the past year have begun to take their toll, both financially and otherwise. In a statement issued by Buckeye Egg Farm in June in response to the state's motion for attachment, Buckeye CEO Bill Glass stated that Pohlmann "is in the process of selling certain of his land holdings and providing other personal assets as security for additional bank financing to comply with the State's substantial environmental compliance requests and to finance operations of Buckeye on an ongoing basis.”
On May 24, Buckeye Egg Farm lost a big customer, the Kroger Company, America's biggest grocery store chain, which, for years, contracted with Buckeye to produce and package its Kroger-brand eggs. This summer, the contract with Buckeye was not renewed. According to Nick Reese, consumer affairs manager for the Kroger Company, Weaver Brothers Farms in Versailles and Midwest Poultry were awarded the contracts. Both, according to Reese, underbid Buckeye Egg Farm. "No Kroger, division now deals with Buckeye Egg Farm," says Reese.
Fleming Foods, in Massillon, the wholesaler that supplies many of Ohio's Super Duper, IGA and other independent grocery stores, also stopped buying from Buckeye Egg Farm, which, until recently, supplied all IGA-label eggs. Fleming now buys from Hillandale Farm in St. Henry.
Backlash against Buckeye was so bad at the Granville IGA, according to store manager Greg Ross, that he put a sign in the cooler, telling customers that IGA-label eggs were supplied by Buckeye, and offered an alternative, Happy Chicken eggs. “Here in Licking County, there was so much bad publicity about Buckeye that our customers wanted verification that what they were buying was or wasn't eggs from Buckeye," Ross says. “We were asked two and three times a week. Happy Chicken eggs are a little more expensive, but our customers seemed willing to spend it."
In fact, finding out where Buckeye's eggs, marketed under a number of different brand names, currently are sold is surprisingly difficult. Buckeye CEO Bill Glass won't reveal either to whom they're sold, or the brand names under which they're marketed. "The negative publicity does impact us," says Glass. “I would not want to put our customers in a position, to have to defend us."
If Buckeye Egg Farm should fold, the effects would be felt industrywide. According to Jim Simpson, a market reporter for the USDA's Poultry Market Newsin Des Moines, Iowa, a Buckeye demise could cause egg prices to jump nationally. "Wholesale costs would probably rise 10 to 15 cents a dozen," says Simpson. "It would be up to the retailer to decide if he wanted to pass that added cost onto consumers."
The market deficit wouldn't last long. "You'd be surprised how quickly we can build buildings and get birds into the system," says Simpson. "Within a year or a year and half, Buckeye's loss would be absorbed by the industry."
The loss of Buckeye would have other immediate impacts locally: the loss of 650 jobs and the $15 million annual payroll that is put back into the local economy; the $28 million worth of grain that Buckeye now buys from Ohio farmers would be lost, impacting not only the growers but also the local feed prices, and the trucking companies that now make a percentage of their income hauling Buckeye eggs across the country would have to find work elsewhere.
Attorney General Montgomery, says Buckeye had its chances. “We've tried to work with them," she says. “But time frames were not met. Violations of the orders continue. It's time to ratchet down the pressure, turn up the heat.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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