Today is my birthday and I am taking a day off. So I asked my friend and boss, Emily from Odom Farming Co to write a guest post about what is currently going in our state with lawsuits against hog farmers. I hope this will help you understand that we need to support local farmers.
Last year The Husband and I were nominated to serve on the NC Farm Bureau Young Farmer and Rancher committee. It’s a group of 20 or so young folks (we feel like elder statesmen, being right at the age to ‘age out’) from all over the state who represent young farmers in the Farm Bureau organization. It’s given us so many opportunities, from traveling to conferences all over the country to visiting our legislators on Capitol Hill to doing a Texas Ag Tour this past spring to just meeting folks from all over our state doing the same things we’re doing, networking, and getting ideas to bring home to Y’all. We’ve made some good friends and had the chance to grow our leadership skills and expand our platform. As farmers, we have a story to tell and it’s never been more urgent, or the need more apparent, than right now.
Last month we were on one such farm tour in Duplin County with some folks from our area and some from the west-central part of the state. We went from produce packing facilities to a winery to my favorite, The Best, My Role Model, Mike’s Farm, where we had an amazing lunch as the rain started to pour outside (and I got to fangirl over the owner). The rain put a damper on our plans. We went to a cattle auction company and it had rained so much that we couldn’t go to our next spot. The owner of the cattle company knew the farmer involved in the latest Smithfield Nuisance lawsuit, something that had been on our mind all day being in the epicenter of hog farming not only in our state but our nation. He asked if we wanted to go and the group said sure.
I, for one, had some reservations. I admittedly didn’t know a lot about these lawsuits. I’d assumed like many I’m sure that this was the case of the farmer being a bad actor and not taking care of his farm or hogs. Maybe it was someone who owned the farm but lived somewhere else and had someone taking care of them who wasn’t doing a good job. After all, I grew up around hog farms. My Uncle Pat is a hog farmer and I lived most of my childhood 500 yards away from hog houses. The only time we ever smelled them was if the humidity was right and the wind blew at just the right angle, which was maybe 4 or 5 times a year. There is no better man than my Uncle Pat. He and my Aunt Patricia take dang good care of their hogs. The only time you smell it is when you’re right there at the house and even then, it’s not terribly offensive. I’ve never smelled a crazy bad smell comes from the lagoons you hear so much about either (the hogs live on a concrete floor, where they do what anyone does who eats and drinks, they pee and poop. The pee and poop are washed out into the lagoon, where it sits. These are monitored by the state, samples have to be taken to Raleigh a couple times a year to make sure it’s at acceptable levels. If the water levels get too high it can be pumped off, but there’s a ton of rules and regulations about that too. Back in the day when most hogs were raised on the ground, there was no way to wash the pee and poop. They wallowed it in the ground with the mud where they’d lay to cool themselves [pigs can’t sweat like we do to cool themselves down]). It’s the smell of poo. It’s not great, but at least it’s a natural, organic smell. I also grew up maybe 1.5 or so miles (as the crow flies), from the county landfill and we smelled it more often than the hogs and that smell is nauseating, the sick, hot, sweet smell of rotting garbage. Ugh. It’s the worst. Imagine that trash bag you should have carried out last night times 1000. Hogs are NOTHING compared to that. So based on my history I figured this guy just didn’t care and his neighbors were calling him on it because a well-taken care of hog farm isn’t a nuisance and doesn’t constantly have an overwhelming odor. Still, I was willing to give this man a chance in the name of ‘two sides to every story’ and all that.
We pulled onto the farm and it was nothing like what I had prepared myself to see.
We passed the neighbors who are suing, who lived probably close to the same distance as my mom’s to my Uncle Pat’s hog houses, maybe a little shorter. They had a trail camera set up facing the farm so they could monitor who came in and out of the farm. Directly behind their house was a pasture for Mr. Carter’s cattle. He had 4 hog houses. The grass around was impeccably manicured, probably better than my own farm. We parked about fifty feet from the houses. Take into account that it was humid and had rained. I opened the door and smelled…nothing. I looked around and saw nothing out of the ordinary. His lagoons didn’t smell. The flies were normal for an outdoor afternoon in the country. I honestly can’t even remember seeing any. All of the things these neighbors were supposedly calling a nuisance, all of the things they claimed they had to deal with living near this hog farm, weren’t there. I realized that I had been completely wrong. This farmer clearly did care about his hogs and was doing an amazing job taking care of it.
Mr. Carter was there, having spent the day planting because he was having to spend his weeks in Raleigh at the trail, giving him 2 days to get all of the weeks to work done. He looked weary and had the appearance of a man under a lot of stress. He spoke to us about the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit. He was a retired police officer who bought his farm as his retirement. He was trying to build something from nothing, trying to build a legacy to pass to his children and grandchildren. After he put in his hog farm, his neighbors built their houses. He was friendly with them, helping them clean up after storms, speaking to them any time he saw them around, even paying for a funeral when they couldn’t. A few years ago a law firm out of Texas came around asking questions, talking about the millions they could get for someone wanting to sue. His neighbors decided to take the lawyers up on it, figuring they were suing Smithfield, not Mr. Carter. Most commercial hog farmers now have contracts with companies like Smithfield, Goldsboro Milling, or Prestage, where the farmers own the houses and take care of the hogs, feeding them, cleaning them, and administering medicine when needed, and the companies own the hogs and provide the feed. Mr. Carter felt shocked and betrayed that his neighbors would say his farm was a nuisance when he’d done so much to make sure it wasn’t. Still, he never said a negative word about them. In fact, he said one thing he hated the most about this whole situation was that when the lawyers were gone and the media was gone and everything had settled down his community was going to be left with a huge wound that might never heal.
I left that day shocked and scared to death, and since then it’s only gotten worse.
If a man like Joey Carter could be sued, if a farm like his could be found a nuisance, who is safe? Anyone’s farm could be found a nuisance. Anyone of us could have our livelihoods jerked out from underneath us at any moment. The amount of damage that could be done to the economy of eastern North Carolina is astronomical. How many of these frivolous lawsuits do these companies have to lose before they decide that being here is not worth it anymore? How many millions in fines do they have to be slapped with before they say enough is enough and pull out? What would happen to our communities then? Just think of the thousands of jobs that would be lost and the families that would suffer.
If you take nothing from this, please take this: farmers aren’t the bad guys. All we want is to do our jobs. These farms that surround you aren’t ‘factory’ farms. They’re family farms just trying to make a living and feed the world. Farmers aren’t trying to poison you with pesticides and GMO’s. They aren’t standing around rubbing their hands together as they pump chickens full of hormones and hogs full of antibiotics raking in profits while fooling an unsuspecting public. That goes against everything we stand for. Farmers want to raise the best crop they can the safest, most efficient way possible. They want to take care of their animals, in the most humane way possible because they are human beings with hearts who care. Animals aren’t given hormones and haven’t been in decades. If an animal is sick, it could be given an antibiotic, just like you are when you’re sick (I mean what do people expect them to do? Let them suffer and die over something that could be healed with medicine? Would you do that to your dog? Would you do that to your child?). If an animal is given antibiotic it’s monitored to make sure it’s antibiotic free before it’s sold. ALL meat sold in the US is antibiotic free. The fact of the matter is, farmers only make up 2% of the population. That means 2% feeds 98%…more when you consider the global market (and modern farming is very much a global market). We’ve had to become as efficient as possible not only to make sure we get the job done but to make sure there’s a profit at the end because while input costs have skyrocketed, market prices have not changed in decades.
Hog farms aren’t nuisances, they’re how you get fed. They’re how the pork chops and ribs and barbeque and bacon got on your table. The fact of the matter is as a society we aren’t going back to an agrarian lifestyle where everyone has a couple hogs in the backyard. A very few are having to raise enough for a great many. Before you are quick to judge, find a hog farmer to ask questions too. Visit a farm. Don’t know one? Contact me and I’ll do whatever I can to make a connection for you. Go see and listen for yourself before you let the media tell you what to think. I know you’ll be just as shocked as I was upon my trip to Mr. Carter’s.
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