In our Farm Bureau family, when one member is hurting, it touches all of us and we band together to lift each other back up. That’s what families do. Right now, some members of our family are facing a time when their very livelihoods are under attack. I’m sad to say that’s the situation facing hog farmers in North Carolina, where money-hungry big-trial lawyers have swooped in pitting neighbor against neighbor with overblown lawsuits. It’s times like these that call for us to speak up for our neighbors and rally together as the nearly 6-million strong family that we are. If we don’t stand together, these trial lawyers will be coming for the rest of American agriculture soon.
For these big-trial lawyers, lawsuit abuse is their bread and butter. Their charge this time: that hog farming as a business is a nuisance to the very communities the industry supports. On top of that, judges have allowed these lawyers to roll right over the state’s strong Right-to-Farm law and shutout jurors with any farm background or understanding of ag. If these lawyers cash their next big paycheck at the expense of North Carolina hog farmers, there’s nothing standing in the way of them crossing state lines to head straight for each of our farms next.
This all started in 2014, when 26 lawsuits were filed on behalf of 541 plaintiffs who claimed that hog farms in their areas were creating a “nuisance” to neighbors’ quality of life with farm odor and truck noise. At the end of 2017, a North Carolina judge ruled that the state’s Right-to-Farm law was no defense against these “nuisance” claims. The first set of trials has wrapped up, and all three juries have returned massive multi-million-dollar verdicts for the plaintiffs. These jurors, by the way, live nowhere near the farms under trial, and the judge refused to let them visit. Although these cases have been brought against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, it’s the individual farmers who are being driven out of business now.
Is it true that life in farm country comes with its own set of sights and smells? Of course, it does, but so does city-living. I can give you a whole list of the nuisances I face in Washington, D.C. Between the buses and the sirens and the traffic, it’s a wonder that anyone gets any sleep in this city. Give me fresh, country air and open spaces any day. Of course, I don’t have to sell you all on the benefits of farm life! Most of you choose to live right there on your farms because you know there’s no better place to raise a family.
Farmers care deeply about our neighbors, and the folks we have had the privilege to share our property lines with for years, even decades. In fact, I wish more folks had the opportunity to live close to a farm because it’s a shame that our country is losing sight of what it takes to produce the fresh, wholesome food we all enjoy. I’m proud of how far we have come in making our farms and ranches sustainable. As farmers, we don’t settle for good enough: We’re always looking to do better. Consumers need to understand what’s at risk with these kind of lawsuits, and they need to know that an attack on agriculture hurts all Americans. If we as a country are going to stand for treating agriculture as a “nuisance,” we can say goodbye to locally grown food. We’ll be handing over our food security to become dependent on other nations for our food—nations with different standards of safety by the way.
We cannot and will not stand for what big-trial lawyers are looking to get away with in North Carolina. There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that says, “though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” As a Farm Bureau family, we will stand together, and we will come through this stronger. It’s time for us to face this real threat head on. Let’s raise the alarm on this issue so our communities know what is at stake, and let’s work with our state and national lawmakers to ensure our right to farm is protected. Let's show these big-trial lawyers they can't line their pockets at the expense of our strong rural communities.
Vincent “Zippy” Duvall, a poultry, cattle and hay producer from Greene County, Georgia, is the 12th president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.