Our booming metropolises might get the most attention, but North Carolina is still very much an agricultural state. Though fewer farmers are actually pulling the levers in Raleigh, the farming community still wields considerable political power.

This fact was on display again last week as the General Assembly overrode the governor’s veto of the controversial NC Farm Act of 2018.

Farm acts are usually pretty straightforward and sail through without much notice. But this year, the farm bill included a provision that would make it more difficult for people who live near farms to sue their operators if they’re causing problems for their neighbors.

For the past several years, several dozen of these lawsuits have targeted major companies like Smithfield Foods1 that supply the farms — and have begun to yield verdicts in the tens of millions. They claim that hog farms are making it too noisy and smelly for people living close by.

But some 2,000 farmers and their allies marched on Raleigh last week to make the case that these farms aren’t that bad. While that rally didn’t get as much attention as teachers did last month, the farmers were probably more effective.

Why were they so successful?

Here’s the short version.

1) Fearing scores of legal battles that could eat away profit margins, Big Ag lobbied for protections that will keep them from getting sued in the future.

2) Republicans — particularly suburban ones — balked at the bill. They worried that homeowners wouldn’t be able to defend their property.

3) Farm interests successfully turned the bill into a referendum on whether lawmakers support small farmers. In that context, it passed handily. Pigs still have power.

Now for the longer version.

Cash crops

If you live along the I-85 corridor, it’s easy to forget how important agriculture has been — and still is — to North Carolina.

But agriculture still bats above its weight in North Carolina. At $85 billion, farming makes up just under one-fifth of the state’s economy and employs more than 680,000 people — more than the number of office workers and salespeople in the state.

And of that major chunk of the economy, hog farming is one of the most important segments. North Carolina is the country’s second-leading producer of pork behind Iowa, with some 9 million hogs across 2,300 farms.

Only in the past 20 years has the population scale tipped toward North Carolina’s urban areas. As recently as the year 2000, more than 60 percent of the state’s people lived in rural counties.

Classifications from the N.C. Rural Center. As of 2015, 41% of North Carolinians lived in a rural county, 25% in a suburban county and 34% in the six urban counties, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

And for most of those 20 years, the state legislature has debated how to regulate the hog farming industry.

Throughout the 1980s, hog farmers maintained powerful allies in the General Assembly, several of them farmers themselves. Hog and poultry farms were exempted from certain sales taxes and farms were exempted from zoning regulations the county might want to put on them.

The tide began to turn in the mid-90s. A 1995 series from the News & Observer uncovered the impact that unchecked hog farming had wrought on eastern North Carolina’s waterways and  The series, called “Boss Hog,” won the newspaper the coveted Pulitzer Prize for public service.

Later in that decade, two major hurricanes flooded hog farms across the eastern part of the state, sending waste into waterways. The state banned the construction of new hog farms in 1997. Environmental regulation enforcement got tougher.

Today, the NC Pork Council, which lobbies on behalf of hog farmers, says they’re one of the most heavily regulated industries in the state.

Pro-agriculture policies are back on the upswing.

Soon after Republicans came back to power in 2010, North Carolina started to see pro-agriculture or pro-hog farm laws return.

  • In 2015, House Bill 405, also known as the “ag-gag” bill passed over then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s veto. This makes it illegal for someone to take a job somewhere with the purpose of recording what goes on in non-public areas. It’s still being challenged in court.
  • That same year, Senate Bill 513 allowed older hog farms that hadn’t been in use for awhile to be revived.
  • In 2017, House Bill 467 limited the amount of money somebody could get from suing a farm to the “reduction in the fair market value of the plaintiff’s property.”
Aerial view of an N.C. hog farm by Friends of Family Farmers via Flickr (Creative Commons).

This year’s Farm Act was intended to keep people from suing farms for being farms.

Senate Bill 711 goes farther than any of those three laws. The main provision puts some pretty strict limits on when a neighbor is allowed to sue a farm for creating a nuisance. Nuisances generally have to do with smells and noise.

Basically, you can only sue the farm for creating a nuisance if 1) It’s a new farm, within the first year; or 2) The farm has made a major change to its operations. A new owner or expansion doesn’t count.

It’s worth noting that the law does not prevent farms from being sued for reasons of negligence, trespass or personal injury.

You could argue that the law is intended to keep people from suing farms just for being farms — a little rough around the edges, with big machinery, animal noises and sometimes smells. It’s even called the “Right to Farm Law.”

Some two dozen lawsuits have already been filed against Smithfield, and these will be allowed to continue. Several have already resulted in multi-million-dollar verdicts. The other fear supporters of this law have is that lawyers from around the country would smell the money and come rushing in to file suit.

This all seems reasonable. So then what’s the problem?

Many of the lawsuits that have been filed in the past five years have been regarding long-established farm operations, and filed by homeowners who have lived nearby for decades.

Sometimes nuisances build over time. Sometimes it’s only particularly bad at certain times of the year. The legal theory behind these lawsuits has only recently come into being, and only a tiny number of the thousands of hog farms have tested it out. The people who live near farms also tend to be disproportionately poor and minority.

That’s the Democratic argument.

But many Republicans opposed the bill initially as well. It initially passed the House by a vote of 65-42, which might not have been enough to override a veto.

Their argument has to do with homeowners being able to defend the use and enjoyment of their property.

Republican former House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam called it a “serious and direct threat to the private property rights of citizens throughout the state.”

Photo of a Yancey County farm by Kolin Toney via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Worries about jobs and supporting small farmers won out.

After the tight initial vote and Gov. Roy Cooper’s subsequent veto, the state’s Big Ag lobby put on the full-court press. They were successful in branding the issue as being about supporting small farmers.

Even in 2018, Republican politicians can’t survive being labeled as anti-farmer.

But their turn of conscience is also about jobs.

Opponents cast Smithfield as a major corporate polluter villain, but it’s also a major employer in a part of the state that’s already hurting economically.

Facing the prospect of scores of lawsuits, Smithfield has said it could re-evaluate its operations in North Carolina. If the company were to pull out of the state, that would be economically devastating — leaving some 10,000 people jobless.

A $25 million example came just days after the law passed. Neighbors had sued Smithfield over operations at Joey Carter’s family farm in Duplin County.

In modern agriculture, big companies like Smithfield provide and own the hogs and count on smaller farmers to raise them.

Elvis and Vonnie Williams argued that the farm was responsible for loud banging from trucks, drawing flies and creating an odor that keeps them from enjoying their home.

The NC Pork Council complains2 that the jury was not allowed to actually go visit the farm. But the jurors ended up finding on behalf of the Williamses, awarding them $25 million.

This law is essentially to placate Smithfield and keep them from pulling out of North Carolina by preventing more of these lawsuits from happening.

Is agriculture’s influence on the wane?

This is one of those issues where most legislators today are woefully under-informed. There’s not really time for all 170 members of the General Assembly to spend a few days touring hog farms and the surrounding neighborhoods to see what conditions are like.

In today’s General Assembly, there just aren’t that many lawmakers that have that experience.

Despite this, we should mostly be surprised that this was controversial in the first place. The fact that so many Republicans were opposed in the first place could be a sign that agriculture’s influence is declining.

Let’s see what comes in the NC Farm Act of 2019.

Cover photo of a small Robeson County farm by Gerry Dincher via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

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