ELIZABETHTOWN — For years, the neighbors of HD3 Farms of the Carolinas saw the workers come and go.
Friendly waves and smiles were shared, typical as they are of country life here and most anywhere in North Carolina. Two months from now, HD3 Farms plans to still have its workers.
What it won’t have are the 8,000 or so hogs those workers were tending as part of the farm’s contract with Smithfield Foods. The neighbors were approached about four years ago by a Texas lawyer with dreams and promises of fortune, if only they’d sign on with him and go fight corporate — not necessarily their farm neighbors.
The third of 26 nuisance cases wrapped up Friday in the Raleigh federal courtroom of Judge Earl Britt. The jury said Smithfield Foods should pay $473.5 million in damages to plaintiffs Joyce McKiver, Woodell McGowan, Eunice Anderson, Annjeanette Gillis and Ben Artis, though state law will cap that payout at $94 million.
Back in Pender County, on the farms owned by White Lake businessman Dean Hilton and run by David Mixon, of Autryville, the year-to-year contract with Smithfield will run its course. Because the lawsuit orchestrated by lawyer Michael Kaeske on behalf of the plaintiffs said Smithfield did not stop “the obnoxious, recurrent odors and other causes of nuisance” hogs headed to market won’t be replaced.
“It goes beyond HD3 Farms,” Mixon said. “It hurts us as a company, losing almost 8,000 hog space. Our contract will be pulled. When you lose a nuisance case, Smithfield has no other choice but to pull the hogs from the farms.
“They’re going to not be allowed to put hogs back on the farm.”
That’s only part of the equation set in motion by the Texas barrister, the Pender County neighbors, a former Lumberton lawyer appointed to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter 41 years ago, and a jury of 12 in Wake County.
“It affects people so much more than just the farm,” Mixon said. “The tractors, the trucks — all were purchased somewhere. It affects where we bought them, the fuel, our equipment and our hay. But it’s a big loss for us.”
State House Rep. John Bell, of Wayne County, predicts losses for all of eastern North Carolina absent a change that will stop Kaeske’s winning streak in the first three cases.
“You want to talk about a welfare state?” he said Friday at an agriculture roundtable discussion. “Lose agriculture in eastern North Carolina. We will not exist.”
Mixon talks highly of Hilton, the owner whose reputation Kaeske sought to besmirch during a trial that began July 11. Mixon, 48, served in the Marines from 1988 to 1992, went to work for Carroll Foods after that and rose through the ranks, doing well enough that he could purchase two farms.
He’s got more than a quarter-century in hog farming, with plenty to do on his farms and no need to work for anyone else. Yet he did it anyway when Hilton called, putting two sons-in-law in charge of his operations in November.
“He’s smart, and he wants to do things the right way,” Mixon said. “As much as I care about the hog industry, if there’s ever a time I’d go out and work for someone else, he is the one.
“He cares more about his people that work for him than the bottom line. They want to see these people succeed. He runs it more like a family than a business.”
In turn, workers are all in for the company. Some took reductions in pay, Mixon said, to join a farm they view as a better opportunity.
“I’ve got plenty to do at my farms,” Mixon said. “The more I got into it, the more I saw he’s making a difference. He’s doing nothing but helping the hog industry. That’s why I got involved.”
Mixon, like Hilton, stands by the employees.
On the company’s Facebook page, a Friday post read in part, “Despite the outcome, we will persevere.” It noted changes and improvements since Hilton purchased the farm four years ago, and said in lament, “Unfortunately, those facts didn’t seem to resonate with the jury during our trial.”
HD3 Farms, Mixon said, is pledged to helping other farmers win their cases. It is part of what makes the company unique.
“This operation is different,” Mixon said. “These people are hard workers, been on farms all their life. I’ve never been around people who care more than these do.”
And so HD3 Farms will adjust. The possibilities of exactly what will happen are numerous, even including Smithfield getting hogs back on the farm.
“We’re going to restructure and shift things around,” Mixon said. “We’re going to try to hold onto everybody, and find work for everybody.”
Negatives are piling high in this battle. Mixon also sees the good.
“I’ve never seen the farming community come together like they have through this,” he said. “Not just the hog farmers, but the industry in general.”
In many counties, signs dot the landscape urging support for farmers. Mixon assures, the signs are not just in the yards of farmers — — they’re in the yards of people from all walks of life.
The window on hog farming at HD3 Farms got closer to being shut Friday. The six to eight weeks left will move fast. An appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., can’t go forward until Judge Britt signs this case, and so far he hasn’t signed the first one against Bladen County’s Kinlaw Farms that ended in the spring.
Hilton and Mixon are busy. They’re fully invested in the once troubled farm they’ve turned into a success, and they’ve got a lot of skin in the industry and the community. They worry for their employees supporting their families.
“By no means have we given up,” Mixon said. “We spoke to employees, and it’s just the beginning of the fight. We’re going to support the farmers that are yet to go on trial as well as the ones that lost the cases before us.”
As for the neighbors he and his workers have shared that friendly wave with, Mixon says he understands.
“By no means do I have malice toward these plaintiffs,” Mixon said. “They’ve been our neighbors for years. I don’t really blame them. The people that understand what is happening don’t blame them. Somebody has come in and offered them something, and promised them things.
“You put something like this in front of them, and they see that they can receive something to make their life better — I’m not sure they understand the impact on the community. It was portrayed it would hurt Smithfield and not the farmers, and that’s what he portrayed it in the court.”
Reality suggests there is much more to the equation. Entire communities are going to feel the punch. More yard signs won’t be a surprise, but the courtroom is where the fate of many will be decided.
“I’ve heard rumors of plaintiffs that want to pull back out now,” Mixon said of future cases. “I think people didn’t know the impact it was going to have.”