North Carolina’s recently appointed assistant commissioner of agriculture is ringing warning bells that the nuisance lawsuits facing the state’s hog farmers are a threat to all of agriculture and it is vital that farmers make their voices known to the 98 percent of the population not involved in agriculture.
Speaking at the Coastal Agrobusiness Cotton and Soybean Conference in Greenville Dec. 4, Dr. Sandy Stewart, assistant commissioner of agricultural services for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, presented an overview of the numerous lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown and hog farmers in the state.
“We have seen three trials in Raleigh in a federal court room. In each of those trials, there were out of state lawyers who succeeded in finding neighbors of hog farms who called them a nuisance based on dust and odor and whatever other health concerns they could find. They were able to choose a jury of North Carolinians that agreed with the plaintiffs that indeed neighboring hog farms were just that: a nuisance,” Stewart said.
“The end results were multi-million dollar settlements. In each one of those cases the hog farmers lost their hogs, their livelihoods and the farms they had built. In not a single one of those trials was there any accusation that anybody violated any regulations,” he added. “If you tend hogs and have a hog farm you know it is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the country. Nobody violated any regulations.”
In the meantime, just over a week after Stewart delivered his remarks to the Coastal conference, a federal jury in Raleigh on Dec. 12 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs once again in a fourth trial. So far, all four jury verdicts have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
The lawsuits are being brought by the Salisbury, N.C., law firm Wallace and Graham in partnership with Texas attorney Michael Kaeske who has a track record of commercial litigation and personal injury cases across the country. In total, there are 26 lawsuits with nearly 500 plaintiffs.
Stewart is a well-known leader in North Carolina agriculture. On May 29 he rejoined NCDA, replacing the retired Dr. Richard Reich, the previous assistant commissioner. Stewart worked previously for NCDA as director of the research stations division.
Stewart noted that in at least one of the trials, the plaintiffs moved into the area after the hog farm was already there. Moreover, in each trial, juries were not allowed to actually see a hog farm live and in person.
“They are in search of money; they are in search of big money,” Stewart said.
“If you look at what happened in these cases so far you just have to shake your head and wonder how did we get here? When they chose the jury anybody who said they had a connection with agriculture was stricken from the list, even if they carried Farm Bureau insurance,” Stewart explained.
“There was a statue of a pig allowed to be in the courtroom — which was seemingly smeared with feces — which sat in front of the jury the entire time during the first three trials. That’s kind of like having a murder trial and having a mannequin with a knife stuck through the heart.”
“In one trial, plaintiffs were allowed to have an expert on odor testify, but the odor expert from Smithfield who actually used a device that empirically measures odors was not allowed to testify.
“How is it you can go to the capital city of a top 10 agricultural state and find three juries with actually no connection to agriculture that would convict our industry of being a nuisance?” Stewart asked the Coastal crowd in Greenville of mostly farmers.
Stewart did point out that earlier this year the North Carolina legislature created stronger right to farm acts in the state. This makes it much more difficult to bring a nuisance lawsuit and it was a direct response to the already filed nuisance lawsuits.
“It passed the legislature by a very thin margin. It was vetoed by the governor and the legislature had to over-ride the veto. But it would not have been passed at all, we would not have the stronger set of laws to protect agriculture, had organizations like Farm Bureau, the Grange, commodity groups and others not been in the forefront all along,” Stewart said.
He also said the nuisance lawsuits illustrate the importance of farmers reaching out to the vast majority of the public that has no ties to farming or agriculture. He said the nuisance lawsuits show that any member of the public could become a juror in future nuisance lawsuits.
“Make sure your voice is heard. Those of us in agriculture are less than 2 percent of the population. If we choose to stay on the sidelines we will get over-run. We have to multiply our voices, and we have to speak with some unity,” Stewart said.
He urged the Coastal audience of farmers to tell their stories and make friends and advocates of the other 98 percent of the population. “When you’re as small a percentage of the general population that we are, it’s kind of dangerous to make the lines of the 2 percent and the 98 percent more distinct than they already are” he warned.
“You’ve probably seen the stickers ‘no farms no food.’ I believe that to be absolutely true: No farms no food. However, I worry about the distinction it draws. Do we need to draw that line any more distinct than it already is? That’s a hard question we have to ask ourselves in agriculture, because we are the victims of our own success, but we have been the worst public affairs agency for several years.
“We’ve done a poor job of telling our story in many cases,” he said.
Stewart emphasized that the lawsuits are not just about hog farms. “How many of you at some point during the summer create dust? How many of you have equipment that is kind of noisy? Do you have pumps that run at night? Do you spray products that have an odor? Are you required to post signs that say, ‘danger no entry’? Any of those things might be a nuisance. You might have some neighbors who don’t like that. This is a threat to not just the hog industry. It is a threat to all of agriculture. Make no mistake,” Stewart said.