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Farmers seek governor's support for industry

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Gov. Roy Cooper, left, listens to the concerns of local farmers Audie Murphy, Everette Murphy, Jerry Cunningham and Mike Hardy, from left, and others during his Aug. 14 visit to Snow Hill.

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By BRENDA MONTY
The Standard Laconic

Saturday, August 25, 2018

 

SNOW HILL — When Gov. Roy Cooper made a recent stop in Snow Hill, he was met by Greene County farmers seeking reassurance of his support for agriculture in the state.

Cooper stopped in Snow Hill on Aug. 14 to visit several downtown businesses while on a tour of eastern North Carolina.

Before reaching town, county government and business leaders awaiting his arrival at Hardy’s Appliance and Furniture, Cooper was greeted in the parking lot by several Greene County hog, poultry and crop farming families holding signs that read “Every Family Needs a Farmer — support NC Farmers.”

The farmers’ presence stemmed from Cooper’s veto of a bill to limit lawsuits against farming operations. Several suits have been filed against hog operations in the state due to their use of lagoons, where hog waste is stored behind livestock pens, then liquefied and sprayed onto nearby fields.

In June, the General Assembly passed Senate Bill 711, which mandates a nuisance lawsuit can’t be filed against an agriculture or forestry operation unless done so within a year of its establishment or fundamental change, which does not include changes in ownership, technology, product or the operation’s size.

The bill also limits when punitive damages can be awarded, mandating they apply only if a farm operator has a criminal conviction or received a regulatory notice of violation that state farm laws were broken.

Cooper vetoed Senate Bill 711 in June.

“While agriculture is vital to North Carolina’s economy, so property rights are vital to people’s homes and other businesses,” Cooper said in a veto message. “North Carolina’s nuisance laws can help allow generations of families to enjoy their homes and land without fear for their health and safety. Those same laws stopped the Tennessee Valley Authority from pumping air pollution into our mountains. Our laws must balance the needs of business versus property rights. Giving one industry special treatment at the expense of its neighbors is unfair.”

The Senate and House overrode the governor’s veto.

Industry supporters believe excessively high compensation awards could cripple the pork production by driving processors and producers out of the state. 

Greene County farmers wanted Cooper to acknowledge their importance to the state’s economy, and they presented facts to underline their contributions and justify their waste-management methods.

North Carolina is the second largest hog producing state in the country, second only to Iowa, according to pork industry rankings. North Carolina has approximately 9 million hogs on nearly 2,300 hog farm operations. Greene County has 102 hog farms and more than 100 poultry farms.

Eve Honeycutt, Greene County Cooperative Extension’s livestock agent, said North Carolina has the strictest permitting program in the world regarding animal waste management.

“The permitting program covers everything from the number of animals allowed on site to the amount of nitrogen (in the form of wastewater) that can be applied to a given field based on crops and soil types,” she said.

Farms are inspected annually — more than any other state — to make sure that their land application records match up with lagoon levels, rainfall and evaporation and land application, Honeycutt said.

Animal waste is considered a certified organic form of fertilizer, which protects natural resources, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The current lawsuits are an example of how there is a great disconnect between urban and rural communities, and how food is produced,” Honeycutt said. “Yes, animals have a smell; they always will. Human waste also has a smell and is dealt with in a very similar manner if it is handled through a wastewater treatment plant.

“The lagoon and spray field system that is used to treat human waste is also used to treat animal waste,” she said. “This method is effective and allows for crops and soil systems to effectively treat the waste before it flows further into the groundwater. Crops, roots, and soils are effective at removing the nutrients from waste as well as holding soil in place to prevent erosion, which is the number one cause of water pollution.”

Modern, effective farming practices have assured that animals are humanely treated and raised to provide low-cost protein that is used by the majority of the world, Honeycutt said.

“Neighbors of farms always have to weigh their options,” she said, “Do they want to enjoy the rural nature of life outside the city limits? This life includes smells, sounds and sights from a farm. Farming occurs in rural communities.”

The NC Right to Farm Act specifies that as long as farmers are obeying the law, they are free to operate according to recommended farming practices.

“The current nuisance lawsuits are an example of the judicial system and how it works. A federal judge has imposed his bias opinion and is attempting to sway jury pool after jury pool to see that a certain personal bias is inserted into every trial,” Honeycutt said. “There are 26 lawsuits against Smithfield Hog Production. So far, three cases have been tried. Smithfield Hog Production intends to appeal every single guilty verdict.”

Murphy-Brown owns the animals, the feed and the trucks involved in hog operations. However, since it is the farmers they contract to who handle the animals and their waste, Murphy-Brown potentially could make them responsible for paying the damages.

Poultry growers, as well as crop farmers who grow vital ingredients for the animal feed industry are keenly interested in the outcome of the cases.

After meeting with local farmers, Cooper reiterated his appreciation for their work and vowed to seek solutions to the disputes between farmers and their neighbors.

“I strongly support our farmers across the state,” Cooper said. “That’s an issue we all need to work on. We will continue to do that.”

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