Politics & Government

‘Traffic jam’ at Duplin County hog farm as rally pushes back on neighbors’ lawsuits

Hundreds of farmers and other local residents gathered at the Carter hog farm Tuesday to respond to lawsuits they said are threatening the pork industry and other farmers.

As a result, traffic was bumper to bumper in this community near Beulaville in Duplin County, one of the top hog-producing counties in the country.

“This is a historic event,” Rep. Jimmy Dixon said. “The first traffic jam in the history of Hallsville, North Carolina.”

Dixon, a Warsaw Republican, was addressing a sea of jeans, plaid and colorful signs that read, "No Farms No Food."

A series of lawsuits has hit Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. North Carolina juries have twice sided with hog farm neighbors dealing with smells and swarms of flies and other nuisances.

Most recently, a jury awarded more than $25 million last week to Duplin County residents Elvis and Vonnie Williams, neighbors of the 4,700-hog farm of Joey Carter, a former Beulaville police chief.

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That was where Republican legislators and other elected officials brought supporters Tuesday for a rally and news conference criticizing the lawsuits and touting a new state farm law that limits when and how hog-farm neighbors can file nuisance suits.

“You work hard every single day to make ends meet, you know the daily struggles of what it’s like to grow pigs or turkeys or chickens or to grow your row crops, and you do that without complaining, and the government comes in and passes regulation after regulation,” Lt. Gov. Dan Forest told farmers.

“There comes a time every once in a while where you have to say ‘enough is enough,’ and this is one of those times in the history of North Carolina farming.”

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Forest, a Republican, is expected to run for governor in 2020 against Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the farm bill over Cooper’s veto. At one point, mention of the governor’s veto brought boos from the crowd.

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There was a moment of silence as the Carter family arrived. Dixon asked for those present to respect the family by not questioning them after the news conference.

Almost all of the speakers referenced “big-money, out-of-state” lawyers coming into the community and putting local farmers out of business. Forest said the lawyers make billions of dollars by pushing these lawsuits.

“It’s lawsuits like these that are going to put our family farms out of business, that end up ruining the economy of North Carolina for tens of thousands of workers,” Forest said.

Opening arguments are due to start this week in a third trial. Like the others, it was filed against Smithfield and subsidiary Murphy-Brown, not individual farmers.

“There was nothing in the court case to take the Carter’s farm away at all; that’s completely a choice of Smithfield Foods under their contracts,” said Ryke Longest, director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

“Joey Carter was not a defendant in the last trial; Smithfield Foods actually filed a motion with the court to dismiss the case and asked the court to join Joey Carter into the case,” Longest said.

Longest said Smithfield is motivated to do this because if a grower were sued, the case would be moved into state court, which would mean a jury from Duplin County would be making the decision instead of a jury pulled from all over eastern North Carolina.

Molly Diggins, state director for the Sierra Club, said Smithfield and those aligned with it would like people to think individual farmers are the ones being harmed.

“Obviously family farmers are a far more sympathetic face to the public than a massive corporation,” Diggins said.

Smithfield describes itself as a "$15 billion global food company” and is owned by WH Group, which is headquartered in Hong Kong and generated $22 billion in revenue last year.

“They’re the ones being sued, period,” Diggins said.

Dixon was asked at the news conference about the impact of a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods on these local farmers.

“This is Smithfield Foods,” Dixon responded as he gestured to the local farmers gathered around.

Dixon said jurors were misled because of exclusion of evidence and should have been allowed to visit the farms.

“We believe that the judge should have considered a motion for a change of venue to put us closer to the people who are really our peers,” Dixon said.

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Both Longest and Diggins criticized the timing of the news conference amid hog farm lawsuits.

“We’re concerned about the appropriateness of the lieutenant governor and lawmakers weighing in on pending litigation,” Diggins said.

Speakers on Tuesday said lies and misinformation have been spread about the farming industry.

“For many years, there were very smart, intelligent people who had the people of this world convinced that the Earth was flat,” Dixon said.

“I hope this is a wake-up call not only for the hog industry in North Carolina, but every farmer in this state needs to understand you are not safe. This could happen to any one of us,” said Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, a Republican.

“There are very few people, if any, in the cities and urban areas of this state that can raise the protein that their families need. We do it every day. We do it in the most efficient way it can be done.”

Five-year-old Jase Knowles leaves a rally and press conference in support of family farms with a sign for his yard on Tuesday, July 10, 2018 at Joey Carter's farm in Duplin County near Beulaville, N.C. Hundreds of people gathered on the Carter farm near Beulaville to show their support for farmers and hear from North Carolina Lt. Governor Dan Forest and Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com