Farmers and agriculture communities are the backbone of our great state, and every time I see a billboard proclaiming, “Thank a Farmer Three Times a Day!” I wholeheartedly agree. Our farmers are the reason each of us has food to eat and clothes to wear. More specifically, hog farmers in our state work day and night, with little time off, to put food on all of our tables. They do so with limited resources. Meanwhile, our General Assembly willfully ignores the needs of our farmers and agricultural communities, failing to provide them with necessary financial resources to convert antiquated open-air hog waste lagoon systems to environmentally sustainable waste management systems. Ignoring this issue pits farmers against their neighbors rather than constructively solving the dilemma to serve the best interests of everyone in our agricultural communities.
Hog lagoons are open-air pits, the size of a football field or larger, where hog waste is stored before it is sprayed onto surrounding land – so the lagoons do not overflow. As anyone who has been near one of these large hog farms can attest, the stench can be overpowering. The vast majority of the hogs creating that stench are owned by Smithfield Foods, now a Chinese-owned entity; that is the company that some neighbors have sued for the nuisance Smithfield has caused by continuing to use an antiquated waste-disposal method. Sadly, Smithfield refuses to use superior technology, identified by scientists at North Carolina State University, that’s been deemed operationally and technically feasible. In other states, such as Missouri, Smithfield has been forced to adopt superior technology. Refusal to act both by Smithfield and by our state government has caused our farmers’ neighbors to desperately seek relief from the courts. As a result, three juries have returned verdicts to force Smithfield’s hand.
So far, there have been three trials, and each respective jury unanimously decided that not only has Smithfield unreasonably caused a nuisance for these neighbors, but also that Smithfield should be punished – to the tune of more than $500 million – for using antiquated waste-disposal methods when better, cleaner methods are available. Instead of heeding these juries’ advice, Smithfield decided to attack the court system!
Smithfield-backed politicians and other industry representatives have falsely claimed the judge and jurors have a bias against farming – despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. In fact, the judge was born and raised on a farm in the heavily agricultural Robeson County. The three juries collectively consisted of 34 Eastern North Carolina citizens, many from leading agricultural counties and with varying political and economic backgrounds. Yet still, all 34 jurors agreed on one thing after hearing all the evidence: Smithfield must clean up its act.
Not only has our veto-proof General Assembly ignored this problem, it recently passed legislation prioritizing the financial interest of Smithfield, a Chinese-owned corporation, over the safety and welfare of rural North Carolinians. The sweeping legislation was passed, over Gov. Cooper’s vetoes, stripping citizens of their constitutional property rights and destroying over 200 years of North Carolina’s law on nuisance. The law effectively bans North Carolinians from suing bad actors, such as Smithfield, for nuisance, enabling Smithfield’s continued use of outdated waste practices for the foreseeable future regardless of harm caused to our agricultural communities.
Smithfield claims that forcing it to make changes on these farms will force Smithfield out of North Carolina and force family farmers out of business. This is nothing more than a scare tactic to make its own employees, farmers and even jurors fearful that Smithfield will leave. Actions, however, speak far louder than words, and Smithfield’s actions include a $100 million expansion of the Tar Heel processing plant in 2017 as well as adoption of new technologies in other states, all while remaining operational and profitable. They have no intention of leaving North Carolina – nor should they. Not with folks like Tom Butler raising hogs.
Tom Butler is a 77-year-old hog farmer in Harnett County. Once he became aware of the extent to which his operation was harming the environment and his community, he took matters into his own hands. He installed lagoon covers and other improvements – despite receiving no financial backing from the hog industry. After his lagoons were covered, his neighbors reported to him that it was as though the farm and its odors practically disappeared. Smithfield continues to ignore the problem, and solutions, putting its bottom line before the welfare of North Carolinians.
Last year, Smithfield made $1 billion in profit on the backs of our North Carolina farmers and paid nearly $250 million to just four of its executives from 2010-15. Yet our underappreciated and underpaid farmers have not seen meaningful increase in revenues for years. Our farmers simply cannot afford to improve or correct our hog lagoon waste problems, but Smithfield can. Smithfield must.
Since the good citizens of Cumberland County returned me to the General Assembly three years ago, I have become painfully aware that, as a body, we are quick to blame and short on solutions. It seems we would rather play political football with issues of vital importance than fix those issues and actually improve the lives of our people. Simply put, we must have a clean environment in which to live, and we must also support our farmers. Smithfield knows this and continues to use its time-honored scare tactics to push our farmers and the General Assembly into acting irrationally.
I plan to formally request Gov. Cooper to make this a top priority item in his budget and to back our introduction of the bill in the Nov. 27 session of our General Assembly. If Gov. Cooper or legislative leaders call a session earlier, I will request the governor call for its passage at that time. Simply put, our agricultural communities and wonderful rivers and streams are too stressed to delay action. Specifically, I propose that the state and Smithfield equally share the costs of covering the lagoons and installing innovative waste management systems. The state would fund this public-private initiative using a portion of the state’s $1.8 billion “Rainy Day” fund. Smithfield’s costs are feasible given it is merely a small fraction of just one year’s profits. Doing so would give much-needed relief to our environment as well as to the families living in our agricultural communities. As Mr. Butler said in the cover story of the most recent Campbell University magazine: “I just want to do the right thing. If we don’t do the right thing – as an industry – people are going to suffer. ... We don’t have the right to make anyone suffer while we profit.”
A clean environment and a strong, sustainable agricultural industry are both essential to North Carolina’s future and are not mutually exclusive. Attacking our court system is an excuse, not a solution. While I realize my solution would use our citizens’ precious tax dollars, I can think of no better use than to preserve both our environment and the farmers who feed us.
Near the end of his last term in office, knowing that the industry had to change, Gov. Hunt called for a 10-year lagoon conversion plan. That was nearly 20 years ago. Since then, not only has no conversion taken place, the conversion process hasn’t even started! As 34 impartial Eastern North Carolina jurors have now unanimously agreed, Smithfield’s “kick the can” strategy must end.
I welcome a healthy, civil debate.