TURNER — The new management of the state’s largest egg farm said Tuesday the company will keep local leadership in place as it takes over. The statement offered Hillandale Farms’ first public comments since taking control of the former DeCoster Egg Farm last month.
On July 8, the long-term lease changed hands from Moark, a Land O’Lakes subsidiary, to Hillandale Farms Conn LLC.
Orland Bethel, Hillandale founder, signed the new lease, according to state records. In 2010, Jack DeCoster and Bethel were asked to testify in front of a congressional committee investigating a massive salmonella outbreak centered around their operations in the Midwest. Bethel refused to answer questions, pleading Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
DeCoster’s corporate entities still own the farm in Turner, along with closed egg facilities in Winthrop and Leeds, but DeCoster “has no involvement in the management of the farms,” according to a news release.
“We are pleased with the agreement that was reached in July, and we are committed to a cooperative permitting process, being excellent stewards of the hens and the environment, and being the kind of neighbors the residents of Maine can feel good about,” Melanie Wilt, spokeswoman for Hillandale Farms, said in a news release Tuesday. “Land O’Lakes/Moark has made continuous improvements in the operations that will serve as a model for our management moving forward.”
The Turner facility has an estimated 2.3 million chickens.
Hillandale will take over the farm’s payroll on Sept. 26. The management group will remain the same as under Moark.
“As Hillandale Farms, we will continue to improve operations as we have worked diligently to do over the last four years as Moark employees,” farm manager Skip Hagy said in the release. “We take good care of the barns and surrounding area to ensure our operations are successful and that the result is hens that are well-cared-for and eggs produced in the best environment to be bacteria-free and as fresh as possible.”
Hillandale Farms, a private, family-owned company, operates in several states. This summer, its Pennsylvania farm was the subject of an undercover video shot by the Humane Society of the United States purporting to show “filthy, cramped conditions” and mummified chickens.
Hillandale officials didn’t deny the scenes on the video, but in an interview with ABC news said the company has rigorous health and safety protections in place and that the video “isn’t a true representation of our program.”
Under DeCoster, the Turner egg farm had a long history of labor and animal violations.
Earlier this year, DeCoster and his son were sentenced to three months in jail for their roles in the 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened an estimated 60,000 people. They are free while awaiting an appeal. The DeCosters managed Hillandale’s Iowa farm, which was involved in the half-billion egg recall spurred by the outbreak.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing a request from Moark to transfer all of its air, solid waste, water and discharge permits to Hillandale.