Robesonian

$473.5 million verdict could be costly for hog farmers

If you are a Robeson County farmer whose livelihood depends, wholly or even partly, on raising hogs for slaughter, then you have to be devastated by a jury’s decision on Friday to award hundreds of millions of dollars to plaintiffs in a “nuisance” lawsuit against Smithfield Foods.

If you eat pork, you might be concerned as well.

In Robeson County during 2017, there were about 340,000 hogs in line for slaughter, the sixth most in North Carolina, which trails only Iowa in hog production. In Sampson and Bladen counties, the hog population surpasses 1 million. At Tar Heel in Bladen, Smithfield operates the world’s largest slaughterhouse, where more than 5,000 people — many from our county — work and 32,000 hogs or so are butchered a day.

So Friday’s verdict has the potential for devastating consequences in the regional and state economy, which is why state lawmakers are scrambling to provide protection to hog farmers.

It is important to understand that the lawsuit wasn’t about environmental damage, but instead was brought by six neighbors of a Pender County hog farm under contract with Smithfield that found the company failed to stop “the obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance” resulting from hogs that “generate many times more sewage than entire towns.”

The jury fixed the damages at $23.5 million in compensatory and $450 million in punitive, which will be reduced to $94 million under limits in state law. The sheer size of the settlement is inane, which we believe actually works against the movement to push these hog farms out of sight and smell. It makes the verdict, in that regard, laughable, but farmers aren’t amused.

Anyone who has been stuck while driving behind a tractor-trailer transporting hogs is all-too-intimate with the foul odor that is produced, so imagine living nearby on a downwind day. It’s a genuine quality-of-life issue, with a lot of moving parts, including who put a stake in the ground first, the hog farm or the neighbor.

North Carolina Republican lawmakers, both on the federal and state level, engaged quickly on Friday, decrying the verdict and pointing out that it threatens not only the hog industry, but the agriculture industry, including the growing of corn and grain to feed hogs, and chicken farms, which aren’t exactly fragrant.

State Sen. Danny Britt, a Lumberton lawyer and a Republican, pointed out that hogs are an $11 billion industry in North Carolina, accounting for 46,000 jobs.

“I have family members and lifelong friends who have small and large operations farming grain, corn, poultry and pork,” Britt said. “Two of the three farms involved in the lawsuits that have reached a jury verdict were with farmers I have known personally for over 30 years.”

This is the tension that results when one person’s right to earn a living squares off against another’s unwillingness to be forced to endure the odor and flies that hog farms produce. There does exist the technology to cap these lagoons, but the cost is prohibitive, at least for the farmers.

“These are good hard working families who have not violated a single federal or state environmental law,” said Britt, who promised that he and fellow Republicans in Raleigh would work to diminish the possibility of such nuisance lawsuits.

There doesn’t appear to be a perfect solution, at least not one that is affordable. We worry that despite the fact that all of us love our BBQ, that the ones who will pay dearly for Friday’s verdict are the hog farmers.

You know them. They are our neighbors.