Nuisance lawsuits could affect farmers nationwide

By Jessica Domel

“If we don’t do something about it, there isn’t a farm in this country that is going to be safe.”

Those are the words of North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler who is speaking out on a series of nuisance law suits against hog farmers, claiming odors from the farm and truck traffic is impacting their quality of life.

“We don’t think there has been a fair hearing by peers on this issue,” Troxler said.

A federal grand jury awarded $473.5 million in damages to six North Carolina residents who sued Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

Due to North Carolina statutes, each individual in the suit may receive $225,000.

“Farmers are being put out of business because of this, and if you read a lot of the things that are being said about it, they say, ‘We’re not suing the farmers. We’re suing a multinational corporation,’” Troxler said. “But the end result is farmers will not get whole back on these hog farms. My analogy is if I’ve got a candy store, and I can’t get candy to put in that store, I’m out of business.”

U.S. Congressman Mike Conaway of Texas, chair of the House Committee on Agriculture, was with Troxler and others at a recent round-table to discuss the nuisance lawsuits.

Conaway told the crowd he was there to listen to their input, but he sees the widespread implications this kind of litigation could have.

“This is also a great example—a terrible example, quite frankly—of the growing disconnect between those who eat and those who produce it. That divide between urban and rural America is apparently going to get worse and worse,” Conaway said. “If this concept stands, it’s going to be really difficult for America to feed itself with American-grown products and foods. We’ve got to figure out a way to solve that.”

For Zippy Duvall, a Georgia farmer and president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the issue hits close to home.

“If it’s in your back yard today, it will be in my back yard tomorrow. This is not just about you. This is not about a nuisance. This is not about money. I take this personally because I left my farm 2.5 years ago, where I’ve been growing poultry and still grow poultry today, to try to make a difference in your life with some great people at American Farm Bureau and the great state Farm Bureaus across this country,” Duvall said.

Duvall lives in Washington, D.C. during the week to serve as president of AFBF, which is a drastic change from his life on the farm. He said the change for him highlights how no matter where you are, there could always be something someone considers a nuisance.

“If you want to talk about a nuisance, let me tell you (what) a country boy thinks a nuisance is. I have to live in the middle of Washington, D.C. The noise, the fumes on the buses (and sirens),” Duvall said. “For the American people to think that we can farm and not have particular smells and sights that I love, that I crave to go back to every day, it’s just unacceptable. We were in our communities first. We were in rural America first, and people are moving around us.”

The nuisance lawsuits will affect more than agribusinesses that contract with growers to raise their chickens or hogs.

It will affect the farmer, who may carry debt on the buildings used to house the animals, his or her family and others they do business with.

“If they de-populate (a farm), there is no one that is going to come back and do it. This might be going after big companies and big money, they say, but really the ones that are going to suffer the consequences are our farmers and ranchers that have done everything according to the law and done everything to be a good neighbor,” Duvall said.

The lawsuits pit neighbor against neighbor and community against community, Duvall said. He believes it could handicap the best food system in the world.

“In Colossians 3:23, it says whatever you do in life—whether you’re a farmer, a banker or work for the government—we ought to do it with all our heart as if we were doing it for the Lord. Farmers and ranchers wake up every morning and do their job as though they were doing it for the Lord, and I promise you, they will not be a nuisance to our Lord,” Duvall said.

Brown is reportedly appealing the court’s decision.

Sen. Thom Tillis and Congressman David Rouzer of North Carolina said they may introduce federal legislation to check lawsuits like these.

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