The right to farm is under fire

By Andrew Heck

What would you do without your farm? It is most likely your primary source of income and your home. Your family might have lived on that land for generations. It might even be inconceivable to you that life would ever look different.

When we think of the reasons why producers may become dispossessed, what typically comes to mind is financial ruin. In late 2018, when Canadian pork prices were at decade lows, some producers, unfortunately, made the difficult decision to shut down their operations. In other, rarer cases, the banks came knocking. Either situation is far from ideal, but these are not the only situations in which a producer could have his livelihood taken away.

In a modern world where the wants of a growing, predominately urban public trump the needs of producers, sadly, farmers often lose. Old MacDonald had a farm, until social pressures drove him under, it would seem.

North Carolina producers feel the heat

Andy Curliss, CEO, North Carolina Pork Council takes environmental stewardship seriously. He is shown here in January 2020 standing on a covered digester used to produce renewable energy at a hog farm in his state.

During a breakout session at the 2020 Banff Pork Seminar, Andy Curliss, CEO, North Carolina Pork Council, brought forth a handful of public issues facing producers in his state.

One such issue was highlighted in a 2018 article published in the North Carolina Medical Journal, which suggested an increased risk of mortality in communities associated with confined animal feeding operations. The study was widely distributed and manipulated by agenda-driven agriculture adversaries, but it was also challenged by a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who effectively demonstrated the limitations of the study.

The data, too, supports a different conclusion. As an example, in North Carolina’s two counties that account for nearly half of its pork production, neither of those counties is among the top 25 per cent of counties with the highest mortality rate across the state.

Another studied cited hog barn odour as a potential cause of asthma for school-aged children. Even the data used in the study appears to contradict this claim, as children attending school within a two-mile range of any farm had no greater instance of respiratory problems compared to children attending schools more than two miles away. As with the study on mortality, researchers in Iowa and North Carolina raised objections.

Such instances of baseless complaints lodged against farmers are not without consequence. There are many examples of how such studies are taken out of context by activists and mainstream news media to support a narrative that confirms the biases of those who oppose modern farming.

Even before the North Carolina studies on mortality and odour, other nefarious influences had contributed to a poor public image for the industry. Predictably, much of this campaign was driven by disruptive people, but it required the public support, media platform and legal recourse to become truly devastating.

Duplin County becomes a tinderbox in need of a spark

Central to the odour controversy is the practice of spraying treated lagoon manure on fields. In North Carolina, the method was banned at new livestock operations in 1997. For grandfathered operations, the practice continues to this day.

The timing of the ban was conspicuous, given that many newly built operations were appearing near a golf course where the U.S. Open was hosted in 1999. A long-standing, effective practice of manure disposal was eliminated to satisfy the desires of the professional sports and entertainment industry.

Payne Stewart during the fourth round of the 1999 U.S. Open Championship held at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club No. 2 Course in Pinehurst, N.C., Sunday, June 20, 1999. (Copyright USGA Museum/J.D. Cuban)

Households in Duplin County have a median annual income of $36,679, which is $25,258 less than the median annual income of $61,937 across the entire country, and $13,641 less than the median of $50,320 across the state. Compared to other counties, Duplin has an unusually high number of residents working in agriculture. The median property value in Duplin County was $88,800 in 2017, which is two-and-a-half times smaller than the national average of $229,700. Interestingly, the home ownership rate is 69.7 per cent, which is higher than the national average of 63.9 per cent.

Historical systemic racial division and poverty play an important role in understanding Duplin County’s social and political affairs, and these things should not be overlooked. But for the full picture to come into focus, it is necessary to examine the issues more closely to determine which factors and influential players are responsible for generating the friction. Often, the malicious intentions of bad actors can be found at the root.

The increased presence of agriculture and higher rate of home ownership suggest that this area is ripe for a potential conflict regarding land use. That conflict has been found in the less-than-glamorous side of animal agriculture. From the perspective of producers, learning to accept the unflattering reality of hog production is simply necessary in this line of work. It is how producers make their living and provide food for those who would likely be incapable of doing so themselves. For a misinformed or ill-motivated segment of the population, that often-unspoken reality becomes an easy target.

Joey Carter fights the blaze valiantly

Following an exploration of issues broadly facing North Carolina producers, Curliss told the harrowing tale of Joey Carter: a producer who, for more than three decades, met and exceeded North Carolina state regulations for hog farmers and was known to constantly upgrade his operation, based on considerations of animal welfare and the environment. In addition to hogs, he raises cattle and is active in his local cattlemen’s association. Even before and during his time as a producer, Carter served as a police officer (now retired) and volunteer fire chief for the town of Beulaville. He is, by many people’s objective standards, a model producer and citizen.

In July 2018, a North Carolina jury awarded more than $25 million in a lawsuit against Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest pig and pork producer, which owns 500 farms in the U.S. and contracts with another 2,000 independent operators in the country. In total, there are 26 federal lawsuits affecting 86 farms, filed by more than 500 plaintiffs living near those farms in eastern North Carolina.

“The lawsuits are a serious threat to a major industry, to North Carolina’s entire economy and to the jobs and livelihoods of tens of thousands of North Carolinians,” said Keira Lombardo, Smithfield senior vice president, in a statement.

At the time, Carter was a contract finisher for Smithfield. Carter’s farm was one of those targeted by the lawsuits. Rather ironically, one of the suit’s plaintiffs even lives on property that was voluntarily subdivided from the family’s plot by Carter’s father, purchased and developed five years after Joey had already built two of seven total barns that made up his total operation. To date, the same land Joey Carter’s father started farming several decades ago has been home to four generations of the Carter family.

A five-year-old boy leaves a rally and press conference in support of families affected by the lawsuits, in July 2018, held at Joey Carter’s farm. Hundreds gathered to show support for the affected farmers. © The News & Observer, Raleigh, U.S.

Complicating the matter further was the imposition of a gag order against the farmers who were being targeted by the lawsuits. Rather incredibly, only representatives of Smithfield were allowed to testify in court, and public comment on the lawsuits by defendants was effectively banned.

“It’s been kind of tough knowing the relationship and how the community was before this all started, and how it is today,” said Carter, in a September 2018 interview with the North Carolina Farm Bureau. “It’s really driving a wedge between the farmers and a lot of people in the community, which it shouldn’t.”

Partly owing to the demographics of Duplin County, the debate over the smell of hog manure and detection of fecal bacteria (generated by a white farmer) on nearby homes (of black residents) has, in some ways, amplified existing tensions and provided a platform for a wider discussion on social issues.

The phenomenon is made clear by the fact that the lawsuits against Smithfield were created by out-of-state lawyers who chose to seek mostly African-American plaintiffs living near Smithfield farms, which represents a statistical anomaly, considering the two-to-one, white-to-black ratio of residents in these areas, according to U.S. census data from 2017. Rather than seeking to better their communities by urging improvements be made to area farms, plaintiffs sought financial compensation alone.

Suffice to say, the heart of this dispute goes well beyond what any producer is prepared to tackle on his own, and while social license should be the concern of every producer, it is disheartening to think the problem is being addressed, however adequately or inadequately, through lawsuits and legislation, rather than stepping back and working for a community-based solution that benefits all.

“You’ve got to stay positive to survive and get thought it,” said Carter. “It’s going to be alright; it’s just a bump in the road. In the end, I really think somebody else is in charge—somebody higher up—and we’re going to be fine.

“The time we’re in, I think nobody’s safe—whether you’re in the hog business, chicken business, turkey business, cow business. I just don’t know what it’s coming to.”

Joey Carter (left) shakes hands with an official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, following Hurricane Florence in 2018. Manure lagoons in this part of the U.S. can become environmentally hazardous in severe weather, if not managed appropriately.

Lawsuits have farmers and allies seeing red

In January 2020, the U.S. Court of Appeals heard arguments from Smithfield’s law firm against the controversial nuisance lawsuits, citing seven serious errors that resulted in an unfair and improper trial. The U.S. Court of Appeals previously heard arguments against these lawsuits in September 2018, during which time the farmer gag order was harshly criticized as being unfair.

Leading up to the January 2020 appeal, the North Carolina Pork Council joined forces with the U.S. National Pork Producers Council and other partners to file an amicus brief in support of Smithfield’s appeal.

The appeals process was undertaken with the goal of reversing the punitive damages or ordering a new trial. Rulings are typically issued three to six months after oral arguments are heard. At the time of this article’s publication, no ruling had yet been made.

What is burning in Canada?

In 2018, Ponoka County, Alberta, released its Municipal Development Plan (MDP), which included restrictions on the development of new confined feeding operations in a 20,000-acre area where more than a dozen already exist. In addition to being home to many existing confined feeding operations, the region boasts some of the highest-quality soil found anywhere on the prairies for cropland.

The restrictions were detailed in the County’s North West Area Structure Plan, affecting an area immediately adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth II Highway—the major roadway between Edmonton and Calgary. This population corridor includes some of Alberta’s fastest-growing cities and towns, driving demand for non-agricultural use.

Rather than a concern for odour or contamination, as in North Carolina, Ponoka County’s rationale within the plan states, “There is a strong demand for rural residential parcels, and the County is willing to meet this demand provided that it does not damage agriculture or the environment, or impede the logical and economic growth of urban areas.”

Development plans in Ponoka County, Alberta have re-zoned a sizeable portion of land where many intensive livestock operations are found.

Essentially, the County would like to see the land within the defined area zoned for residential properties which are not primarily agricultural. Subdividing this land for acreages would indeed contribute more greatly to the County’s tax base, but at what cost to the community and livestock producers?

In response to the plan’s adoption, the Ponoka Right to Farm Society was formed to challenge the plan in court. The Society now numbers more than 250 area residents who oppose the County’s direction.

“Ponoka County is a farming community, and the municipal government should not be setting up exclusion zones and banning new farms,” said John Hulsman, one of the Society’s board members.

The issue for many producers in the area is that the new restrictions will limit the growth of operations onto new land, which is a concern for multi-generational farm families looking to expand.

In Alberta, confined feeding operations come under the authority of the Natural Resources Conservation Board (NRCB), which has operated since 2002 under the Agricultural Operation Practices Act (AOPA). The legislation is the responsibility of the province’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Before 2002, licensing and compliance monitoring for confined feeding operations were the responsibility of Alberta’s municipalities, which is one reason why Ponoka County’s imposition of the North West Area Structure Plan is raising eyebrows.

In December 2019, the Ponoka Right to Farm Society launched an appeal with the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. At the time of this article’s publication, a court date was set for February 2020.

Hot issues are often complex and diverse

Right to farm is a layered, multi-dimensional topic. Consideration must be given to the region in which challenges are faced and the context surrounding the issue.

In Canada, the matter has not reached the same public proportion as in North Carolina, and the consequences have not been as great. But it is not so far-fetched to imagine that the winds of change could blow the inferno in our direction. Is it only a matter of time?