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By Jefferson Weaver

Jefferson WeaverWhat in tarnation has happened to our state?

I realize that the above is a very general question, but I am specifically referring to the growing trend of lawsuits against farmers. The third one is soon to hit the courts, and if the previous two trials are any indication, another family-owned farming corporation will be bankrupted.

The lawsuits charge that livestock production facilities stink, poison water and make life unpleasant for their non-farming neighbors. A legal firm out of Texas (of all places) began recruiting plaintiffs for these cases a few years back. The federal courts made exceptions to state law to allow the law firm to practice in North Carolina, and said firm has taken full advantage of those exceptions. The jury in the most recent case excluded anyone with farming experience, and ended up with a primarily urban, west of Interstate 95 panel. Coverage of the trial shows that the judge also prohibited allowing the jury to visit a hog farm to determine for themselves if it was offensive. The defense was even prohibited from entering expert testimony from a specialist in agriculture nuisances, although she was allowed to testify that sometimes some farms have a smell. And the gag order about the trials applies not to the plaintiffs, but to the farmers trying to defend themselves.

One of the more frightening parts of the hog farm lawsuits is that the cases were brought on behalf of people who moved into the areas near the farms after the farms were established. So a legal, permitted, inspected and regulated activity was suddenly prime for litigation because folks voluntarily moved in next door and were made uncomfortable (or were convinced by some very slick lawyers that they were uncomfortable, endangered and being treated like second class citizens.)

Missus and I have lived in close proximity to hog and turkey farms at least twice in our quarter-century together. For two years, we didn’t know one particular 20-barn operation was less than a mile away, until the owner stopped to help me with a flat tire. We knew the other facility was there, but on the rare occasions we smelled anything, it wasn’t as offensive as the exhaust fumes form the highway out front.

If you live in the country, in a farming area, you know things are going to sometimes smell. Whether it’s the sweet smell of harvested corn or curing tobacco, or the sharp tang of a truckload of turkey litter being used to refresh a soybean field, or the aromas of cows, turkeys, chickens, and hogs – every natural process involving animals and plants also involves the breakdown of chemicals which result in smells of one kind or another. If you move to a place, you have to realize it’s going to happen. You just have to decide if the occasional smell that might offend you is worth the investment.

Farmers of all kinds, whether they raise critters or crops, face more regulations than a lot of chemical manufacturers. Some of the rules are ridiculous, but many are rooted in good stewardship. And I have rarely known a farmer who didn’t recognize that failing to care for his land this year meant his family would do without next year.

Times and farming have changed dramatically, even in my half-century. I’m fairly sure I am of the last generation where more rural children expected to take over the family farm than expected to move away to find other jobs. Farming methods have dramatically evolved – just as the Farmall replaced the mule, the hog and turkey house have replaced four strands of barbed wire and an oak grove.

Whether we admit it or not, large livestock operations were pushing the environment to a dangerous point back in the late 1960s and 70s. The demand for meat was growing, but open lots could only grow so big before becoming a detriment to the land.

People mocked a friend of my dad’s when the gentleman came to Southeastern North Carolina with a plan to confine hogs and turkeys, process the waste and increase both efficiency and revenues. That man was Bill Prestage. A sharp businessman and a farmer, Prestage made improvements to these wild-haired ideas that others were considering. First it was for turkey production, then hogs. Suddenly those ideas weren’t quite so crazy as before, and not only did families benefit, but the economy and the environment as well. His company and ones like it grew exponentially, and provided a lot of young people the opportunity not just to stay home, but to prosper.

Farmers have always had to be able to adapt; whether it was the transition out of tobacco to other crops, or a new disease, or a new pest, or changing markets, or hurricanes and ice storms, something has always gotten in the way of those who produce the food we eat and the products our society needs to function. When Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, God promised that man would have to toil, and I think farmers especially have always had more than enough reason to want to give Adam a knock upside the head with a tobacco stick.

Of course there have been incidents – hurricanes blew lagoons apart back in the 1990s, forcing a change in the way farms operate. Farms have been caught improperly disposing of waste, rightfully sending people to prison and forcing companies to write checks for large fines – which were then properly used to help preserve and protect the environment.

This new challenge, however, concerns me.

With the affection the courts have shown for lawsuits brought by folks who move into rural areas and decided their neighbors were nuisances, I have to wonder what is next.

Will someone build a home beside a horse farm, entranced by the wide green pastures and galloping horses – only to decide that they are owed money because horse poop smells, horses make loud noises at all hours of the day and night, and (forgive me) sometimes have sex in the middle of a pasture, in broad daylight?

Maybe rural residents will now be subject to being sued by their new neighbors because backyard roosters actually crow, and that sound can be heard for some distance.

There have already been lawsuits filed against hunting clubs because – I am not making this up – hounds bark, howl and bay, and can be very loud.

Of course, true farms, not hobby farms or hunting clubs, are the ones in danger here. Farms and farm families quietly pump a tremendous amount of money into our economy, not to mention providing the food we eat, whether it’s pork from a North Carolina farm or a chicken from Kansas or fruit from Florida.

Most people are five and six generations out from being able to produce their own food; hence, we have to have farms, and big farms. We have long since, as a society, forgotten the skills needed to grow what we eat. I don’t see that changing any time soon, regardless of how many folks on the traditionalist or organic farming sides dream of a chicken in every lawn and a garden in every backyard.

But $25 million judgments can kill a farm faster than a drought, a disease outbreak and a tight banker ever could. Sadly, this appears to be the standard, and it’s unlikely the plaintiffs will see much of those funds, since out-of-state lawyers don’t come cheap.

There was a time when our state understood the value of farms and farming. Now? I am not so sure.

I’m just curious about what folks are going to eat when the fields and farms of Easter North Carolina are managed not by a multitude of environmental regulators breathing down the necks of folks who love the land, but by a homeowner’s association with a committee on things that smell.