Commentary

Saunders: Former farmer is now an orator against hog industry

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJuly 10, 2013 

Thirty years ago, Don Webb would’ve been the absolute last person Wilson County residents thought of to lead a revolution against the hog industry.

Yet, leading a revolution is precisely what Webb sounded as though he were doing from the back of his pickup truck in a TV news interview Monday.

Webb told me Tuesday that he once had 400 sows. “That was a pretty big operation in 1979,” he said, “and I made a little money.” Of course, he said “I made a little money” the way people say it when they mean they made a lot of money.

Yet, in recent years Webb has been a loud opponent of massive farms and is one of nearly 600 people involved in a complaint against Smithfield Foods. He was on TV Monday night bashing the hog, chicken and turkey industries with the fervor of a born-again vegan. Which he is not.

What he is, he said, is someone who sees the damage done to the environment and to the people who live near huge animal farms.

‘That hurt me’

Webb said his transformation began one day in the early 1980s when he stopped at a nearby corner store where people bought saltines, sardines, pork & beans and Vienna sausages – you know, the four essential food groups.

“Evidently,” Webb said, “I was stinking his place up pretty good, and the fella who owned it – Mr. Bazemore – said, ‘Don, I want to talk to you. I don’t want to make you mad, ’cause I like you. But can’t you do something about that odor? When the wind blows our way, we get the flies and it stinks something fierce. People won’t stop. They just drive on to Murfreesboro and buy their groceries there at the IGA and don’t buy nothin’ from me.’

“That hurt me,” Webb said.

“About two days later,” he said, “an African-American man named Mr. Lewis, who lived down a dirt path about a mile from my house, he waved me down. And he said, ‘Mr. Webb, you know, we ain’t got no air conditioning, and we got to set out on our porch, and when the wind blows our way here come the flies and the stench and sometimes it gets in our house at night.’ The old man had tears in the corners of his eyes. Well, that bothered me.

“Anybody who was worth anything, it would’ve bothered them, too,” Webb continued. “I got to thinking about my own mother and father, and I said ‘What if somebody was doing this to them after they’d worked hard all of their lives and can’t sit out on their front porch?’ I wanted to make money, but if I had to destroy other people’s happiness to do it, I’ve got to do something else.”

Webb, who also was a schoolteacher, said he gradually sold off his farm and has been fighting against the negative effects of huge farms ever since.

‘Those are cesspools’

Joel Weaver, corporation counsel for Smithfield Foods, was out of town Wednesday and couldn’t be reached. A call to the N.C. Pork Council was not returned, but I did see a video on its website from Smithfield showing how lovingly the piglets are cared for. The pork council website also affirms the industry’s goal of safeguarding natural resources and treating animals humanely.

Webb is not impressed. “Those aren’t lagoons” into which the polluted runoff from the farms flow, he said. “A lagoon is something a pretty woman swims in in the South Pacific. Those are cesspools.”

You know how some speeches define an era with their passion and grandiloquence?

Remember President Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speeches?

Unforgettable, right?

I’m guessing nobody who saw and heard Webb will soon forget his fiery and dramatic declamation from the back of that pickup truck. “We are tired of being forced to live in the bondage of feces and urine,” he thundered. “Our government has given the hog, chicken and turkey industry the power of eminent domain over the air we breathe.”

The bondage of feces and urine? Say, wasn’t that the third ring of hell in Dante’s “The Inferno”?

Maybe not, but the printed word does no justice to the dramatic presentation Webb made while decrying the deleterious effects of pollution from massive farms on nearby residents. I mean, he gave it the full Patrick Henry, reaching toward the sky, placing his hand over his heart as he declaimed.

The N.C. Senate is considering a bill that would require complainants who lose in a farm nuisance dispute to pay the legal fees of the farmer being sued, even if that farmer is the world’s largest pork producer. In an earlier N&O interview this week, Webb said, “Anybody knows that is wrong. This nation can’t go forward not protecting the middle class and the poor from powerful corporations.”

Since the Senate seems intent upon protecting the powerful corporations from the poor and middle class, I asked Webb if he might consider running for public office, as he did decades ago.

No, he said.

Too bad. They could use some soaring oratory in the legislature. Of course, anyone who doesn’t like the smell coming from the hog farms certainly couldn’t handle the ones emanating from Jones Street.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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