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Small Towns' Economy Could Suffer If Egg Farms Lose Permits

A hearing scheduled to start later this week will help determine the future of one of Ohio's largest egg processors. Ohio Fresh Eggs operates farms with millions of chikcens at sites in three counties north and west of Columbus. The head of the Department of Agriculture wants to revoke the company's operating permits for alleged failure to identify one of its financial partners. But, a permit revocation could hurt the economy of small towns near the farms.

As a young man on a riding lawn mower cuts grass on the Croton town square, the small village in northwest Licking County shows signs of its economic pulse. A few customers enter and leave the local bank, the diner, and Croton Market. Croton is home to an estimated 400 people and at least 4-million chickens housed in barns operated by Ohio Fresh Eggs. County extension agent, Howard Seigrest, says the relationship between Croton and its big corporate citizen is economically co-dependent. "Its a good job market for lots of folks,local farmers," Seigrest said.

Siegrest estimates Ohio Fresh Eggs generates as much as $400-million in economic activity through egg sales, contracts for construction and transportation of feed grain, and through its purchases of corn and soybeans from local farmers.

Farmer Rodney Newell is among the direct beneficiaries of the Croton egg farms. He grows corn and soybeans and helps supply grain to feed the chickens. But, Newell says Ohio Fresh Eggs has cutback its operation in recent months as it responds to environmental requirements and prepares for this week's hearing.

About a block west of the town sqaure, Croton Hardware is open for business. Two men make small talk in front of the door. Inside, owner John Terry helps a customer. Terry bought the small hardware store in 1993 and the egg farm has been a profitable customer.

But, Terry says he too has already noticed a decline in business from the egg farm in recent months as Agricuture Director Fred Daley seeks to revoke the Ohio Fresh Eggs operating permits. And the decline in business has forced him to lay-off workers.

Ohio Fresh Eggs purchased the large-scale chicken farms in Croton, Mount Victory, Goshen, and Marseilles from former owner Anton Pohlman. Pohlman was cited for a string of permit violations for fly infestations and mishandling tons of chicken manure.

NOw, Agriculture spokesman Bill Schwaderer says his boss, Director Fred Daley, wants to revoke operating permits for Pohlmann's successor, Ohio Fresh eggs, for alleged misrepresenation.

Scwaderer says Jack DeCoster is identified in Iowa as an "habitual offender" of environmental permit rules for large-scale egg farms.

And Schwaderer adds that the farms cannot operate without a permit. With the future ownership of the egg farms now in question, Croton busines owners and farmers can only wait as state regulators decide the fate of millions of dollars in economic activity.