'Bitter foe of the gay rights movement' invested in plant
By JOHN O'CONNELL
FIRTH, Idaho -- Eastern Idaho dairy farmer Gaylen Clayson believes a region of milk producers owe their livelihoods to a man who's been vilified lately in liberal political rhetoric.
Frank VanderSloot, CEO of the Idaho Falls-based wellness company Melaleuca, was among eight major donors of PACs supporting Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney singled out in a document described by pundits as President Barack Obama's "enemies list."
The campaign's so-called Truth Team described the donors as "wealthy individuals with less than reputable records," noting some had broken laws and others "made profits at the expense of so many Americans." They also painted VanderSloot as a "bitter foe of the gay rights movement" for opposing an Idaho Public Television children's program delving into homosexuality.
Clayson tells a far different VanderSloot story -- about a man he approached as a stranger who, nonetheless, invested millions to save an eastern Idaho cheese plant and more than 100 dairies that supplied it. Kraft had run the cheddar factory, located in Blackfoot, since the early 1940s and announced the decision to shutter it in the mid-1990s.
"It would have put a lot of dairies out of business," Clayson said.
Clayson and a colleague had no appointment and had never met VanderSloot when they sought his help. Still, VanderSloot bought a $1 million interest in the factory. An investment capital venture assumed control.
"I didn't know anything about cheese and never had anticipated I'd ever want to learn anything about cheese," VanderSloot said.
The plant failed within six months, and the new operators left town, still owing the area's dairymen about $2 million. Clayson's wife, Donna, recalled the tension when the dairymen crowded the local Elks lodge to make yet another plea to VanderSloot.
"In the audience, there were husbands and wives and the second generation of dairymen there and the employees of the plant. We were all holding our breath," she said.
Though he doubted he'd recoup his investment, VanderSloot paid off the debt and staffed the plant with his own personnel. He bolstered the operation's milk supply with 2,000 head of cows that he'd purchased to lease to producers. A few years later, he sold the facility, currently run by Sartori Cheese.
"When he sold it, he had stipulations in there that they take care of the dairymen," Clayson said.
To preserve the history of the local dairy industry, VanderSloot commissioned a book, highlighting the factory and individual farms dating back generations.