“Murphy-Brown requires all of its company farms to operate properly and in compliance with strict state regulatory requirements,” he wrote in an email. “We expect the same of all contract growers. Even more, we expect all farmers to be good neighbors. If any neighbor has a problem with a farm, tell us and we will do our best to fix it.”
V. ‘Promised a pie
in the sky’
In an interview, state Rep. Jimmy Dixon (R-Duplin, Wayne), a former poultry farmer and a Duplin County Republican who is perhaps the hog industry’s most outspoken ally in the General Assembly, makes three fundamental beliefs abundantly clear.
First, he believes the Murphy-Brown plaintiffs’ claims are “at best exaggerations, at worst misrepresentations,” and they’re being “recruited” by greedy lawyers who have “promised a pie in the sky” (see sidebar).
“For people to say they can’t go outside, ‘I can’t barbecue, I can’t invite my neighbors over,’ those are exaggerations,” Dixon says.
Second, he doesn’t buy studies that point to hazards associated with hog farms because “a lot of these studies, a lot of them, begin with the end product in mind, and then they construct it for the outcome.”
And third, he doesn’t think any additional regulations are necessary. What’s more, he’s frustrated that critics don’t acknowledge the industry’s waste-management improvements over the last 40 years, which he calls “unbelievable.”
He’s been no less forthcoming in his public comments.
On April 5, Dixon stepped past dozens of protesters into a crowded committee meeting inside the legislature. He was there to defend his controversial pet project, HB 467, which would cap the amount of money that property owners living near “agriculture and forestry operations,” including hog farms, could collect in nuisance lawsuits.
Under HB 467, people could only collect damages equal to the reduction in their property’s fair market value — which critics argue is already low thanks to the presence of the nearby farms. One Democratic representative estimated that if Dixon’s bill passed, property owners could only recoup around $7,000 over three years.
Importantly, the bill didn’t just seek to limit future nuisance lawsuits. It would also have negated the 26 pending claims against Murphy-Brown.
Introducing the bill, Dixon said it “seeks to promote farming by clarifying and adjusting the maximum compensatory damages that can be awarded.”
Throughout the 40-minute committee discussion, Dixon’s arguments were met by an admixture of support, anger and skepticism. Rep. Amos Quick III (D-Guilford) questioned Dixon about the bill’s discriminatory impact, “because the plaintiffs are predominantly African American.”
Mark Dorosin of the UNC Center for Civil Rights drilled down on that point during public comments, citing research showing that the proportions of African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans living within three miles of industrial hog operations are 1.5, 1.39, and 2.18 times higher, respectively, than the proportion of white residents.
A few days later, following heightened media scrutiny, the bill’s opponents scored a victory. The contentious provision invalidating the pending lawsuits against Murphy-Brown was stripped from the bill. With it gone, HB 467 cleared the House easily, then the Senate.
On May 5 — the same day Rogers’s study showing the presence of pig fecal matter on the exteriors of homes near hog farms was filed in court — Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the bill, saying he opposed “special protection for one industry.”
The hog industry fought back. In addition to its eight registered lobbyists, Smithfield enlisted the services of Tom Apodaca, a former state senator from Hendersonville. Its efforts paid off. On May 10, the House voted 74–40, mostly along party lines, to override Cooper’s veto. The following day, the Senate followed suit.
HB 467 became law.
Deep financial ties exist between the bill’s backers and the hog industry. Cumulatively, House Republicans who supported HB 467 have received more than $272,000 in campaign contributions from the industry throughout their careers, according to an analysis of campaign finance records. Dixon has received $115,000, including $36,250 from individuals associated with Murphy-Brown and $9,500 from the NC Pork Council. House Speaker Tim Moore has garnered $44,650. Sen. Brent Jackson, who sponsored the Senate companion bill to HB 467, has received more than $130,000 from industry associates.
VI. ‘Everything has gone downhill’
If you Google “hog farms and North Carolina,” you’ll see one name pop up again and again: Elsie Herring.
A copper-haired 69-year-old, Herring lives on the same property that her mother — the daughter of a slave — lived on for 99 years. Herring’s childhood memories are built around her family’s land in Wallace — of growing and farming tobacco, cucumbers, soybeans, strawberries and peanuts; of canning food; of smoking and curing meat. Even though those were Jim Crow days, she remembers it as a “happier, healthier time. Everything was segregated, but we still got along. But now, after these hogs came in, everything has gone downhill.”
Herring’s home is adjacent to a farm that contracts with Murphy-Brown to raise 1,180 of its pigs, according to Department of Environmental Quality records and a lawsuit she filed. The lawsuit contends that the hog facility began spraying liquefied waste in the mid-’90s and planting trees between their properties to act as a buffer, which proved ineffective.
Herring says her grandfather purchased the property in the 1880s from his aunt, who was white and, while she was a slave, mistress to the landowner. Herring’s parents built the home she now lives in; her mother, father, brother and sister all lived on the land until they passed away. Herring came back to Wallace from New York in 1993 to look after her elderly mother and her brother, who had Down syndrome. About two years after she moved back, the spraying began, Herring says. She vividly remembers the first time it happened — an otherwise uneventful Saturday evening.
“We were just sitting here having our Saturday evening like we usually do, enjoying,” she recalls. “And in a short time, we heard this bursting sound, and then all of a sudden it started stinking like nothing you’ve experienced.”
Herring felt like she was going to be sick, so she went back inside.
“If you would have stayed out there,” she says, “you would have probably had to end up going to the hospital because this stuff was being released and you’re breathing it in.”
After that, Herring says, the spraying happened “all day, every day.”
The stench became so unbearable that Herring eventually contacted the Duplin County Sheriff’s Office, the Duplin County Department of Health and the state Department of Environmental and Natural Resources for help — all to no avail, she says. She linked up with local activist networks, joining the NC Environmental Justice Network and the Warsaw-based organization Rural Empowerment and Community Health, or REACH.
In 2007, her activism took her to the lawn outside the General Assembly, where she joined other REACH members to protest the effects of hog farming for more than 50 consecutive hours. According to her lawsuit, Herring “called or wrote letters, or both, to the governor, the state and local health departments, the attorney general of North Carolina, the United States Justice Department, DENR, the local sheriff and police departments, the county commissioners, the federal EPA, her congressman, and the owner of the hogs [Murphy-Brown].”
Though the spraying has subsided over the past few months — perhaps as a result of the lawsuits, Herring says, though she can’t be sure — life is still “no picnic.” She ticks off a list of issues she believes the stink and the spraying have brought: flies, mosquitoes, mice, poisonous snakes. To avoid the odor, she stays indoors.
“It’s like living in prison,” she says.
HB 467 came as a surprise, she says. But, to her, its motives were transparent. Like many of her fellow activists, she’s all too aware of the racial dynamics at play.
“This is environmental racism,” she says. “This is my family land. And I’m sure race played a part when they decided they wanted to develop this area.” Herring sighs. “We’ve been asked many times, ‘Why don’t you just move?’ Move and go where? I don’t want to move. I never knew my grandfather, but I know he walked on this ground. And his family.”
She pauses and looks at her house.
“It’s my land.”