In the wake of the largest jury award against the company behind a hog farm operation deemed to be a nuisance, a group of community organizers in Duplin County on Saturday called for open dialogue between farmers and neighbors.
About two dozen people gathered in Warsaw at the office of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, or REACH, to hear from Naeema Muhammad of the NC Environmental Justice Network. She said hog farmers who contract with Smithfield Foods and the people who live near the farms are in a no-win situation.
“We feel like Smithfield is pitting neighbors against neighbors when they talk about people who are in the nuisance lawsuits,” Muhammad said. “Our community members just want to breathe clean air, drink clean water and not be made sick when they step outside.”
Smithfield Foods was hit with a $473.5 million verdict Friday arising out of Pender County lawsuit. It was the third straight loss for the pork producer, and more lawsuits are pending.
Several REACH members shared their experiences living near hog farms.
REACH executive director Devon Hall said he’d like to host discussions between farmers and neighbors as a way of lessening tensions that he feels are growing in the community.
Those tensions are coming from the years neighbors feel like their environmental concerns have been ignored and farmers feeling threatened with the removal of hogs by Smithfield. It was enough of a concern that a Duplin County sheriff’s deputy pulled up and watched from the side of the road on Saturday.
Muhammad said she sympathizes with the neighbors and the farmers.
“It’s a Catch-22,” she said. “I’ve been working with communities who have dealt with this industrial agriculture on ways to protect themselves. The farmers are just trying to protect their way of life too.”
One hog farmer was at the event.
Morris Murphy, who contracts with Smithfield, said he is concerned about how hog farmers are being portrayed. He is not the target of any lawsuits, he said, but he finds the outcome of the first three lawsuits worrisome.
“I am seeing a friend of mine whose livelihood is fixing to be lost,” Murphy said.
The lawsuits arose in part from the method of waste disposal used on hog farms. Traditionally, hog waste was stored in open lagoons and the liquid sprayed on fields. This method was banned on new livestock operations in 1997, but it remains the preferred method on older farms.
Activists would like to see North Carolina adopt tougher environmental restrictions for handling animal waste on industrial-style farms. They’ve pointed to advances in waste treatment adopted by other states, including Missouri. They said Smithfield Foods could help North Carolina farmers pay for these upgrades.
Smithfield Foods is owned by Hong Kong-headquartered WH Group, which posted profits of about $1 billion last year.