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Farm Leaders Urge Federal Shield Against Lawsuits

Two national farm leaders called for federal protection from lawsuits that hold farmers liable for the noise and foul odors of increasingly large-scale agricultural production. “It is time for our elected leaders to step up and stop this madness,” said Howard Hill, speaking for U.S. hog farmers and taking aim at lawsuits that allege North Carolina hog farms are nuisances to their neighbors. “The regulations need to be on the trial lawyers,” said Pesident Zippy Duvall of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Farmers and environmentalists have squabbled for decades over the effects of industrial agriculture on the rural fabric; often as economic growth vs pollution. The North Carolina lawsuits have turned up the volume of that argument. On Friday, a federal jury decided Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, should pay $473.5 million to neighbors of three of its large hog farms in North Carolina. The verdict was announced on the same day that agriculture leaders from across the country met at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh for a roundtable to discuss the lawsuits from their perspective.

Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina blamed out-of-state lawyers taking advantage of “legal technicalities” for “the injustice that I think has occurred in court.” It was a view shared by other speakers. North Carolina state agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler called the lawsuits “a blight” that could jeopardize farmers and ranchers across the country.

“We were in rural America first,” said Duvall. “People are moving [in] around us. They have to understand it,” meaning modern agriculture. Delaware state Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse, who was acting deputy U.S. agriculture secretary during Obama era, echoed Duvall in saying his office gets complaints daily from newcomers who object to nearby poultry farms. “They want them gone,” said Scuse. “This is really and truly a nationwide issue.”

North Carolina Representative David Rouzer, a subcommittee chairman on the House Agriculture Committee, said lawmakers ought to discuss a response at the federal level. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a former Agriculture chairman, is monitoring the issue, said Rouzer.

All 50 states have right-to-farm laws that shield farmers and ranchers from nuisance suits filed by people new to the area and who want to stop ongoing operations, said the National Agricultural Law Center. “While the overall statutory schemes might be similar, each state has noticeably different content in the specific details of the laws.”

This spring, North Carolina state legislators tightened the terms for nuisance suits. The vedict on Friday was the third against large hog farms. Some 7,100 people are employed on large livestock farms in North Carolina, which ranks second in hogs and third in poultry production, said professor Kelly Zering of North Carolina State. Hogs generate 20% of farm revenue in the state.

“We are the keepers of the land. We are good steward of the land,” said Texas state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. “We need to do a better job as in industry in getting the word out.”

To read an Arkansas Life story, produced in partnership with FERN, about feedlot and pasture-grazed hog farming in Arkansas, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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