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What farmers can learn from the hog nuisance suits in North Carolina

What can farmers learn from the nuisance suits against Smithfield Foods? Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council, spoke to two Iowa pork groups recently about the lawsuits in his state and what farmers should know and watch out for. He gives these tips:

The opposition has deep funding and deep beliefs

The opposition sees themselves as movement builders and they are willing to trade in misinformation, disinformation, and distortion, says Curliss. “They want to dismantle animal agriculture and end it.”

Much of the funding comes through foundations, he explains. Eric Schmidt, former chairman of Google, and his wife, Wendy, are funding the grassroots communications and litigation. Dustin Moskovitz, a cofounder of Facebook, funds the animal liberation side. Fred Stanback, a business partner of Warren Buffett, funds the environmental side, including the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeepers.

The Schmidt Family Foundation has a mission to fix the food system, says Curliss. Activist groups they fund include Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Food and Water Watch, Sustainable Agriculture Project, and Public Justice (trial lawyers).

So far there have been five jury trials with five verdicts against the farms involved. The jury awarded $550 million total, which has been capped by state law at about $100 million. There are more than 400 plaintiffs yet to go in future trials.

READ MORE: Smithfield invests another $45 million in bioenergy joint venture

Don’t rely on right-to-farm laws

The nuisance trials in North Carolina show that farmers can’t depend on right-to-farm laws, says Curliss. They may not hold up in court and are expensive to defend.

Take the example of Joey Carter, a contract hog feeder for Smithfield Foods in Duplin County, North Carolina. His family started raising hogs and turkeys in 1984, during a time when there was a major effort in the state to diversify from tobacco. Dozens of homes have been built near the Carter farm since the hog operation was established.

At the nuisance trial, one of Carter’s neighbors testified, “This farm is not a nuisance, it’s a blessing. Nobody’s closer than I am. There’s no issue here.”

Another neighbor said, “Occasionally, there’s an odor. Sometimes, it’s pretty bad. Maybe I want to mow the lawn, but I can’t. It’s not all the time, but there’s times when it bothers me.”

The truck traffic bothers some neighbors. They are woken at 6:00 in the morning by the feed truck coming by. It’s a general claim of annoyance. “They are annoyed by the hog farm that they moved in next to,” says Curliss.

There are no medical or health claims in these cases and no injury to property. “Nobody’s property value has gone down; it’s all gone up,” says Curliss, “and nobody has any problem with their water. They are just annoyed by the farm.”

The solutions aren’t workable

The lawyers are executing the plans of major funders to go after agriculture, says Curliss. They are not suggesting workable solutions. “Their suggested manure solution is a wastewater treatment plan that would cost about $2 million per farm,” he explains.

When their researchers are done testifying, they’ve turned a hog farm into a nuclear radioactive waste dump, says Curliss. “The jurors go home with their eyes as wide as saucers. They cannot wait to get to the end of this trial and protect the community. These lawyers talk only in terms of toxins, fouled organic compounds, viruses, bacteria, feces, and urine. This distortion plays to the fears of a jury. They don’t know that if you touch a doorknob your hand is covered in bacteria.”

One neighbor testified that drift of the farm’s nutrients was coming onto his property, says Curliss. It turned out the applications across his ditch were human waste being applied from Wilmington septic systems. “The jury awarded $75 million to that neighbor anyway,” he says.

This is not about odor

“We don’t deny that there’s odor from hog farms, but it is not frequent or bad,” says Curliss.

Smithfield thought it was an odor case and hired one of the world’s odor experts to do research on the farm, says Curliss. The peer-reviewed methodology showed no elevated objectionable odor at the boundaries of the farms, he says. “The judge did not let them tell the jury about the research. One side got free reign with junk science and the other side wasn’t even allowed to present its case.”

The research was used against Joey Carter, says Curliss. “After two hours of questioning, the judge said, ‘Well, Mr. Carter, you allowed a research project to be done on your farm. You of all people, must have a problem, that they came to your farm to do research.’ ”

The ruling was “Substantial and unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of the property of the plaintiff.”

READ MORE: What it takes to add contract hog finishing to your farm

The end result is farmers out of business

The last hog left Joey Carter’s farm in October. “We have a good farm in North Carolina that today stands empty because of all of this, which is the exact thing that these folks on the other side want,” says Curliss. “They want to put us out of business.”

Curliss was with Carter as the last hogs left. “It was a very good farm owned by a good man and a good farmer.”

Curliss showed a video of the experience. Here are Joey Carter’s words from the video:

“There goes 33 and a half years of work. It's just sad to see it all go. I was 27 years old when I built this. I never dreamed that it would end in federal court. The whole month of June I sit in the courtroom, and it was some tough days. I wanted to be here on the farm. I sat in that courtroom and endured all of that. And when the verdict was handed down, that we were considered a nuisance, we thought, ‘No way.’ Those plaintiffs bought the land from us years after our farm was in operation. I don't feel like I've done a thing in the world wrong. I've complied with all of the laws, the rules, and regulations, and done everything I was supposed to do. The lawsuits have put a lot of pressure on the community. It divided us, neighbor against neighbor. Nobody is safe right now.”

Communities are rising up in support of farmers

There are a lot of Joey Carters, says Curliss. “We care about our communities and we care about our neighbors. If you come to eastern North Carolina, you’ll see a lot of tremendous support for our farmers, for our industry.” He points to homemade signs along roads and in lawns supporting the pork industry. “Not a one of them was printed or paid for by the Pork Council,” says Curliss. “It is completely organic support.”

There is still hope, he says. “The last two trials were in our favor even though they were negative verdicts,” he explains. Some of the plaintiffs received $100, some $1,000, some $3,000.

However, the fight continues. The opposition is deeply funded and see themselves as movement builders, Curliss says. These are strategic, coordinated attacks by class-action lawyers. “This is not a lawyer trying to work out an issue amongst neighbors,” he says. “They are trying to put modern agriculture out of business.”

NOTE: The following is a transcript of the judge's remarks after his ruling

"Hog farming certainly provides many jobs in eastern North Carolina. I understand that. It’s very important to the economy of the eastern part of the state. It is important for our national food supply. But it is harmful to the people who live nearby. It has got to be environmentally harmful to the waterways, seeping into the water. Nobody wants another Flint, Michigan, tragedy down the road. This can’t be good for children’s respiratory systems, the odors, wheezing, and headaches. The inhumanity to the animals and the fatality rate. I suppose they are just animals. Some people think they are ugly and think we can treat them the way we want. I just keep reading this case and I’m thinking to myself, if this was my property I would be outraged at some of these conditions that were allowed to persist. Less fortunate fellow citizens have property rights too. Many of the homes surrounding an operation of this sort don’t go for a high price. The people that live in them, they have a right to good health, they have a right to their enjoyment of their property. If these were McMansions sorrounding these hog farming operations, if these were the houses of the affluent, if these were more politically powerful, wouldn’t those conditions have been cleared up sooner rather than later?"

AV Roth, president-elect of the National Pork Producers Council, and a pig farmer in Wauzeka, Wisconsin, played the recording of the judge's remarks, above, during the National Pork Industry Forum on March 5, 2020. He made these comments:

"What he is discussing has nothing to do with conditions on the farms. Rather, he was swayed by the wholesale attack of vegan extremists against our industry. This is an attack not just on North Carolina; it is an attack on all pork producers. If you are a pork producer, this is an attack on you. Each of us should ask ourselves what more can we do to help."

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