Residents file petition in support of farming neighbors

An estimated 1,600 farming advocates turn out for Duplin County rally on Tuesday

Lt. Governor Dan Forest (R) speaks at a rally in Duplin County on Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Duplin County — A rally in Duplin County brought out more than 1,000 supporters of the state’s farming industry, calling recent nuisance lawsuits an attack on their industry.

The rally came as a group of residents in Duplin County launched an effort to push back against the lawsuits that may put their farming neighbors out of business. Fifteen residents filed a petition in June with the Duplin County manager in support of the local hog farms that are facing fallout from recent nuisance lawsuits. The N.C. farms provide meat to Smithfield Foods, the defendant in the suits and the largest pork producer in the world.

The residents decided to file the new petition after they found out that a 1991 petition they signed was successfully used against the farms in recent litigation.

“I was notified after the fact that they used our 25-year-old signatures in court; I just wanted to do the right thing and correct the record,” said Duplin County resident Doug Pierson. “We’ve been there for years and not had a complaint about the farm.”

Pierson and more than a dozen of his neighbors say the court that ruled against Smithfield Foods, awarding tens of millions to complainants, refused to accept their June 2018 petition supporting the farm into evidence. The court did however take their 1991 petition asking that the then-projected farm be moved to a different location on the same land.

“We did sign the petition in 1991 and then built our house in 1992. It was mostly because of a fear of the unknown,” said Pierson, who works for Farm Bureau Insurance in Beulaville. “Since then my wife walks with the dog every day and I run.  We’ve held engagement parties outside around our pool, we’ve never had a problem with smell or anything.”

The debate over the two petitions, signed nearly three decades apart, is coming up again as Smithfield works an appeal of the June decision.  The rulings so far were on two lawsuits filed by neighbors who claimed that the smells coming from the hog farm prevented them from being able to use their land. They object to the farms’ use of “lagoons” for waste runoff. These are two of nearly 30 similar lawsuits already filed by personal injury attorneys from Austin, Texas on behalf of hundreds of N.C. residents.

Advocates of the farmers say the claims are exaggerated and motivated by the promise of millions in damages. The N.C. Farm Bureau estimated on Twitter that 1,600 people turned out on Tuesday at a farm in Duplin County for a press event featuring Lt. Governor Dan Forest, House Speaker Tim Moore, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Rep. David Lewis.

“Agriculture is not a nuisance – it’s a blessing,” Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) via Twitter

The group called the lawsuits, and the judgements, attacks on the farming industry.

“Pig farmers are ‘bout to make a stink,” tweeted one eastern N.C. farmer.

Pierson and his neighbors echoed the support, saying that the court refused their updated petition, but also denied permission for jurors to visit the farms in question, which are sub-contractors to Murphy-Brown Smithfield Foods.

One Duplin County couple was awarded $25 million by a jury two weeks ago and ten neighbors were awarded $51 million in a decision back in the spring. That award was later reduced to $3 million in accordance with statute.

“This case involved a farm that was not owned or operated by Smithfield. Neither the owner nor Smithfield ever received complaints — from these plaintiffs or anyone else — about odor, truck traffic, buzzards, or anything else,” said Smithfield Foods in a statement following the first verdict. “The farm in question has been in full compliance with its state permit and relevant laws and regulations governing swine operations in North Carolina and is regularly inspected by state environmental officials.”

Before the legislature adjourned earlier this month, lawmakers overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the N.C. Farm Act of 2018, which put limits on suing farmers, requiring that the farm had to have broken the law to pay punitive damages and that plaintiffs had a year from the opening of the farm to sue. That law does not apply to the nuisance lawsuits against farms already in the legal pipeline.

“Our laws must balance the needs of businesses versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair,” Cooper said in his veto message.

“It’s a money racket; that’s all it is,” said Hank Vond of Duplin County, who came to the June 25 rally in support of the Farm Act. “Some of these people have lived there all their lives. Why is it now? Because some lawyer came by and said ‘Sign this paper and you can get some money.’ It’s nonsense.”

According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, hog farming accounts for more than $10 billion to N.C.’s economy and 46,00 fulltime jobs.