Big Pork Rallies as the General Assembly Protects Chinese-Owned Smithfield Foods From Nuisance Lawsuits | News
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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Big Pork Rallies as the General Assembly Protects Chinese-Owned Smithfield Foods From Nuisance Lawsuits

Posted by on Wed, Jun 27, 2018 at 10:28 AM

click to enlarge COLE VILLENA
  • Cole Villena

On Monday afternoon, hundreds of farmers, their families, and employees of Smithfield Foods gathered at Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh to show support for the Republican legislature’s annual Farm Bill.

The so-called Rally for Agriculture, which featured Lieutenant Governor Dan Forrest, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, and bill sponsor Senator Brent Jackson—a farmer with his history of troublesome practices—came soon after another downtown event protesting the bill’s controversial sections 9 and 10, and just hours before Governor Cooper vetoed the bill.

On Tuesday, the Senate overrode Cooper’s veto. The House followed suit today.

As originally drafted, Sections 9 and 10 of the Farm Bill would have made it virtually impossible for an agricultural operation such as a hog farm to be sued for the nuisance it creates for its neighbors, who are often poor and African American. In short, those provisions said there would be no nuisance as long as the farm is following standard agriculture procedures—meaning, in essence, that if everyone used the same method of waste disposal, that method would be legally unassailable, even if it harmed its neighbors.

As the INDY extensively reported last year in the three-part series Hogwashed, there is an enormous body of evidence that farms’ waste-disposal practices not only disturb their neighbors’ right to the enjoyment of their property but also can have deleterious effects on the environment.

Those provisions, however, were removed from the version of the Farm Bill that ultimately passed the legislature. However, the bill does include new restrictions limiting nuisance lawsuits to plaintiffs who live within a half-mile of the agriculture operation and require that any lawsuits be filed within a year of the operation being established or “undergoing a fundamental change.”

These sections’ inclusion in this year’s Farm Bill wasn’t coincidental. Jackson introduced them at the behest of the industry after Smithfield lost the first of twenty-six nuisance trials scheduled to go to a jury. The jury awarded the ten plaintiffs, neighbors of Kinlaw Farm in Bladen County, more than $50 million, but due to North Carolina’s cap on punitive damages, that award was reduced to $3.25 million. Smithfield is appealing the verdict.

The second nuisance trial is about to go to a jury in a Raleigh federal court; however, as N.C. Policy Watch reported, the plaintiffs’ attorneys filed a document Monday claiming that Smithfield’s lawyers had withheld key evidence until after they rested their case.

Speakers at Monday’s event largely avoided discussing the bill’s controversial provision, with Candice Morgan of the N.C. Farm Bureau Young Farmers & Ranchers a notable exception. While describing a visit to Joey Carter’s Duplin County farm, which is the subject of the trial that is about to go to a jury, Morgan said that she “breathed in the injustice that was attacking him in the courtroom.”

“Joey Carter makes North Carolina agriculture—makes hog farmers—look good,” she said.

According to Policy Watch reported, the allegedly withheld evidence in the Carter case showed that neighbors complained about Carter’s farm for thirty years—undercutting Smithfield’s claim that no one ever did—and that Carter rushed to get his waste lagoon built to avoid litigation and, as a result, built it too small. As Policy Watch explains: “When a lagoon is too small, it stinks even worse than an adequately sized one.”

The other speeches given Monday centered around praise for small family farms, despite the many Smithfield logo shirts present. Event organizers handed out signs that said “I’m a Fan of Family Farms.” Other signs read: “Stand Up for NC Farm Families” and “NC Farms Can Feed Stupid. NC Farms Can’t Fix Stupid.”

These signs echo ones that dot front yards throughout eastern North Carolina, where rural residents and the politicians who represent them paint themselves as being under attack by out-of-state attorneys. “Stop Complaining or Put Down the Bacon,” reads a common one. They are also of a piece with a GOP talking point.

As Senator Jackson wrote on Twitter after Cooper vetoed the Farm Bill: “It’s a sad day when the Governor of North Carolina chooses to stand up for out-of-state trial lawyers over our family farmers, and this veto has left our rural communities wondering where the Roy Cooper who grew up in rural Nash County has gone.”


Of course, it’s worth pointing out that the lawsuits aren’t actually targeting “family farmers,” but rather Smithfield, a company purchased by a Chinese company in 2013 for $4.7 billion in a transaction apparently facilitated by the Chinese government. The parent company of Murphy-Brown, the largest pork producer in the world, Smithfield has the financial resources to invest in technologies that would solve many of these issues.

For instance, employing those technologies at Kinlaw Farm would cost just $750,000, according to Policy Watch. Instead, Murphy-Brown announced that it will depopulate that farm of its fifteen thousand hogs as Smithfield appeals the jury’s verdict.

In his veto message, Cooper acknowledged the importance of agriculture to North Carolina but said that precluding nuisance suits is an infringement on property rights.

“North Carolina’s nuisance laws can help allow generations of families to enjoy their homes and land without fear for their health and safety,” Cooper wrote. “Our laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair.”

On Monday, Troxler thanked legislators for “having the guts to stand up for the future of North Carolina agriculture.”

“We are not a nuisance,” he told the applauding crowd. “What we are is a blessing.”

This story has been updated to note that the House overrode the governor’s veto of the Farm Bill, making it law. In addition, due to an editing error, the original version of this story referenced an older version of the Farm Bill that has since been amended; this post has been corrected to reflect that change. 

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