Eggs move along conveyor belts to the processing and packing area at Ohio Fresh Eggs' Croton facility in Licking County. The company says it has worked hard to clean up the mess left by Buckeye Egg and be a better neighbor to the community.

Eggs move along conveyor belts to the processing and packing area at Ohio Fresh Eggs' Croton facility in Licking County. The company says it has worked hard to clean up the mess left by Buckeye Egg and be a better neighbor to the community.

By the numbers, Ohio Fresh Eggs is the largest egg producer in the state and one of the 12 largest in the United States, accounting for 27 percent of Ohio's commercial egg-laying chickens.

The owners of the state's largest egg producer have found that being a good neighbor can put cash in their pockets, too.

Ohio Fresh Eggs has invested $51-million in new infrastructure since taking over the embattled Buckeye Egg Farm in 2003 in an effort to clean up decades of environmental violations and address complaints from neighbors about odor, manure runoff and fly problems.

Improvements include new battery-operated conveyer belts that carry manure away from the laying barns to composting barns at its Licking County facilities in Croton. In addition to cutting down complaints, skyrocketing fertilizer costs have opened a new market for the company's suddenly dry and available chicken manure.

"We used to have to beg people to take it," said Paul Hendershot, a farm manager who has worked at the facility for 24 years. "Now we can't make enough of it."

Earlier this year, the company sold more than 3,200 tons of manure at $6 a ton. That price already has jumped to more than $14 a ton at the company's northern farms and likely will continue to rise, a company spokeswoman said. By comparison, the commercial equivalent of the nutrients found in a ton of chicken manure costs more than $150 a ton.

In the past, manure would collect in the bottoms of the laying and pullet barns and often would get wet because of water leaks. Wet manure is a haven for fly larvae, and the conditions frequently prompted serious outbreaks that plagued the nearby community.

The company also has excavated between the buildings to better handle stormwater runoff, installed electronic dust-control measures, hired an entomologist to monitor pest problems and increased training for some staff members at its facilities in Licking, Hardin and Wyandot counties.

Orland Bethel, who owns a 70 percent stake in Ohio Fresh, said the company has worked hard to clean up the mess left by Buckeye Egg.

"We've made a tremendous effort to improve," Bethel said. "Though it's tough to climb back up that hill after you've been knocked down."

The improvements also have helped the company financially. After losing a combined $50-million in 2005 and 2006, the company made a profit last year. It produces more than 5-million eggs a day at its Ohio facilities.

The state's Department of Agriculture is not ready to pronounce the company reformed, however.

Kevin Elder, director of the livestock environmental permitting program for the department, said that despite improvements, the company still must continue to work with the state to make things better.

"We have issued notices to other farms in the state, but not to this extent," he said.

Since receiving its operating permits from the department in December 2003, the egg company has received 57 warnings and notices of deficiency, some as recently as April. Elder said the company continues to make strides because it's watched closely by the department and problems are quickly brought to its attention.

The department still is contesting that an Iowa mega-farmer with a reputation for environmental pollution and immigration violations has the power to control the company.

The state tried to strip the company of its operating permits after it found out that Austin "Jack" DeCoster put up more than $120-million to finance the takeover of Buckeye Egg. His name never appeared on the company's permit applications, however, something the department says is a violation of rules it enacted to protect the state from polluters like the company's predecessor.

The state lost a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in May that found the company did not violate existing rules by not disclosing DeCoster as the company's backer. Director Robert Boggs said Friday that the department would not appeal the decision to the state's Supreme Court. Instead, it will seek to tighten the existing permit program.

At issue is DeCoster's reputation in the agriculture industry. He once was labeled as a habitual violator in Iowa and banned from building new farms there for five years. Had the state known he was on board when Ohio Fresh Eggs applied for the permits, they would have discovered those issues through a mandatory background check.

Those permits are up for renewal this year, though, and agriculture officials want to know who the company will list as the owners of the operation. When the permits were first issued, the company's owners were listed as Bethel and 30 percent owner Don Hershey.

Hershey said he has had nothing to do with the company for more than a year.

When asked about John Glessner, the man who calls himself the company's new chief operating officer, Hershey described him as the one "running the show" at Ohio Fresh Eggs.

"He's DeCoster's right-hand man," Hershey said. "They're the ones with all the money in it."

That's a 180-degree turn for Hershey, who long maintained that DeCoster was merely an investor and not involved in the day-to-day operations of the farm. The company still says DeCoster is merely a financial backer.

Glessner, a longtime associate of DeCoster, has had plenty of problems of his own. His own egg company was cited for environmental violations by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 2000.

In 2003, Glessner was sentenced to four months in prison for knowingly supplying illegal immigrants to work on DeCoster's Iowa farms. He ended up paying a $300,000 fine in the case, but served no jail time.

Bethel confirmed that Glessner was directing operations for Ohio Fresh and said the company would reevaluate that role before adding his name to the renewal permits due this year.