Iowa food company acquires Decatur-based Crystal Lake Farms for $3.5 million

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 3,161 views 

An Iowa-based meat processing company has acquired Decatur poultry business Crystal Lake Farms, including its Free Ranger line of chickens, for $3.5 million.

West Liberty Foods filed the ownership paperwork at the Benton County courthouse May 2. The seller is listed as JBH-Decatur LLC, an entity managed by Johnelle Hunt. The deal encompasses nearly 1,000 acres and includes all company-owned facilities in Decatur as well as a processing plant in Jay, Okla.

“The acquisition of Crystal Lake Farms and Free Ranger is another exciting step for West Liberty Foods,” West Liberty Foods CEO Ed Garrett said in a statement. “This expansion of our business will allow us to meet the growing consumer demand for humanely grown, pasture raised poultry.”

Crystal Lake Farms will maintain its name and operate as a division of West Liberty Foods.

Gerald Lessard, West Liberty Foods’ chief operating officer from 2004 to 2016, has been named the new president of Crystal Lake Farms. Lessard is based in Decatur and oversees the company’s nearly 200 employees. He spent the last year as COO at Salm Partners LLC in Denmark, Wis.

Blake Evans, the previous president and co-owner of Crystal Lake Farms, is now vice president of industrial affairs and genetic founder. Lessard said Evans’ role will be speaking to non-governmental organizations and representing the company in the poultry organization.

Evans said he has worked closely with the West Liberty Foods team for several weeks and said both organizations have several great similarities.

“This is going to be a great fit,” Evans told Talk Business & Politics-Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “There is a tremendous shift happening in the food industry today, particularly poultry.  Consumers are looking for higher animal welfare options, slow growth genetics and greater transparency. We built Crystal Lake Farms on this foundation, and we are excited to continue to innovate around breed, feed and growing environment.”

The Crystal Lake Farms broilers are raised with pasture-centered, animal-welfare-friendly farming practices, according to the company’s website. Its Free Ranger line is a slower growing chicken that thrives both inside and outside. The animals are raised on numerous family farms throughout multiple counties in Northwest Arkansas and northeast Oklahoma.

Lessard did not disclose any company financial information, but said the intent is to double Crystal Lake Farms’ production capacity during the next 12 months.

West Liberty Foods had about 2,900 employees at six locations in three states. The business was founded in 1997 by the Iowa Turkey Growers Cooperative (ITGC), and remains privately held by that group.

Crystal Lake Farms was founded in 2013, but traces its roots back to 1939 and the founding of Peterson Farms, a chicken production and processing business. Evans, a member of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class in 2006, is the grandson of the late Lloyd Peterson, who founded the business.

Peterson built the nearby Crystal Lake Airport, with its 3,863-foot asphalt runway, to fly his renowned Peterson Male chicks to markets around the world. By 1990, the Peterson Male commanded 73% of the domestic market for breeders, and 34% of the international market.

Peterson died in 2007. The following year, Simmons Foods of Siloam Springs paid an undisclosed amount to buy Peterson Farms’ broiler chicken operation. Evans, the son of Peterson’s daughter, Debbie Evans, was CEO of Peterson Farms at the time, and cited rising feed and energy costs as the reason for the sale.

The Peterson Male line was sold two years later to an Alabama poultry company.