14 December 2020
While Missouri Gov. Mike Parson called huge animal confinements “the next generation of Missouri agriculture,” people who must live next them are increasingly fighting back.
The closure of major pork processing plants across the U.S. has state officials and pork producers in South Dakota planning for the worst — the potential euthanization of thousands of hogs that cannot be sold.
RALEIGH, N.C.—Dan Moore's farm marks an abrupt exit from the fringes of suburbia: cookie cooker homes give way as a rolling road weaves you through a dense canopy of deciduous trees.
It would be easy to miss the driveway but for a small sign of a cartoon cow with a sword, the logo for the family farm dubbed, of course, Ninja Cow.
Moore's family has deep roots in North Carolina. His relatives have farmed here for more than a century.
"I tried to leave like most farm kids but got pulled back," Moore tells me on a mid-80s day in April, right before his busy season. The 84-acre Ninja Cow Farm (named after a difficult and elusive cow from years past) is just 20 minutes south of downtown Raleigh. Approaching the farm, you see the hallmarks of encroaching sprawl—manicured lawns, fastidious landscaping, subdivisions. Moore's plot of Earth is wild, well protected, covered by trees—with the hallmarks of people and animals at work.
The farm is half pasture, half wooded. Moore's hogs roam and root among the trees. They squeal, nudge one another, burrow in mud and eat from piles of would-be-wasted Raleigh Farmer's Market produce.
Moore, sporting a flat-brimmed straw farmers hat, dark shades, khaki shorts, sandals and an orange shirt with the Ninja Cow logo, leads me to a 4x4 Gator vehicle for a tour.
His slight drawl, pork business ties and family roots make him pure North Carolina. But his unorthodox, stench-free farm of free-range pigs and cows is an anomalous outlier in a state—and country—where most hogs are raised in buildings, confined by metal cages and subject neighbors to overwhelming smells and polluted waterways.
Economists and researchers say the market is stacked against farmers like Moore. Outdoor hog production has a place, but it's "clearly a niche," says John McGlone of Texas Tech University, who has been researching different techniques of hog raising for years.
His answer on the future is not nuanced: "It's indoors." The reasons are simple: More control, more consistency, lower costs.
However, meat eaters are increasingly looking for local, humane, environmentally friendly pork. Ninja Cow isn't technically a "pasture farm" since the hogs are feeding on produce from the farmer's market and roaming the woods. But it's unquestionably a farm: And that lies at the heart of a move toward raising hogs outside—both from the farmer's and consumer's point of view.
Advocates of outdoor hog raising say the industry model is simply hiding costs in excess pollution, government subsidies and lax regulation."Commodity pork is not the true cost of food," says Ross Duffield, farm manager with the Rodale Institute, a Pennsylvania-based research institute advocating for organic farming. "We need to get back in touch with farmers, and farmers need to let consumers know hog pork is raised."
HARLAN, Iowa—Over a lunch of burgers and pork tacos, Ron Rosmann talks about everything from bluegrass music to one of his favorite authors, Mari Sandoz.
But when the topic turns to hobbies, his son interjects: "Your only hobby was farming."
Rosmann, smiles, wipes his mouth. "That's true."
His 700-acre farm is much more than hobby—growing organic oats, beans, turnips, hay, and raising about 90 cows and hundreds of organic hogs annually. Rosmann has dedicated his life to environmentally friendly, family farming.
Back at the farm he gives me the tour with barn kittens following us around.
He has a large hoop structure to contain the pigs, a type that's gaining popularity among outdoor hog raisers. The kittens scare some young piglets as we talk organic feed and watch a sow root around a bit, flop her body down, kick around a couple times and seemingly smile once properly muddy.
Of course I can't confirm the smile. But Rosmann's hogs aren't confined in the metal cages favored by industry, which have been linked to stress in the animals. And increasingly consumers are looking for meat that was raised without such shackles.
Last year a U.S. survey found that 77 percent of consumers are concerned about the welfare of animals they eat. In a national survey in 2014, 69 percent of Americans said animal welfare was a priority when grocery shopping. In another survey the same year by the American Humane Association, 93 percent of almost 6,000 people surveyed said it was "very important" to buy humanely raised products.
Humane treatment of animals ranked more important for respondents than organic, and antibiotic free. This spring, in a Food Demand survey conducted regularly by Oklahoma State University, animal welfare clocked the largest increase in consumer awareness among all factors.
Ross Duffield, farm manager with the Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, a nonprofit research group advocating for organic farming practices, says the 2015 purchase of Applegate Farms by corporate giant Hormel Foods is a sign that corporate agriculture "sees the writing on the wall" and that niche meat may soon not be so niche. Applegate makes natural and organic meats, whereas Hormel was perhaps better know for Spam and had almost no organic presence before the purchase.
Also in 2010 poultry giant Perdue purchased Niman Ranch, which operates one of the largest hog pasture operations in the country by using hogs from hundreds of small pasture hog farmers.
"The taste is much better," Rosmann says of hogs raised outside of confinement facilities. "But it also seems a better environment for the hogs."
DURHAM, NC—On a school night in early spring, a rowdy collection of environmental activists, local residents, and Duke University faculty and students packed a public forum, railing against the school's plan to build a new $55-million gas plant on campus.
For nearly three hours, speaker after speaker denounced fossil fuels, decried fracking, and inveighed against the state's investor-owned utility. They begged the university to invest in a "sustainable future," one filled with wind and solar power, not natural gas.
But Tim Profeta, the chair of Duke's sustainability committee and the host of the meeting, had another idea. "We have an opportunity to become a demander of biogas, and not the fracked gas we've been hearing about all night," he said.
Since 2007, Profeta said, the university had been researching the capture of methane from hog manure to create electricity. The technology, called anaerobic digestion, could reduce pollution from the state's 10 billion gallons of swine waste – now stored primarily in open-air pits – and help meet a campus-wide goal of zero net greenhouse gas emissions.
Many in the crowd that night were skeptical. Was it really feasible?
A select group of faculty, staff and students thought it was. Two weeks after the forum, the panel made its recommendation to their university's top brass: only build the new plant if, within five years, Duke could purchase enough swine biogas to fuel it.
Campus leaders – who had been working toward a vote to approve the plant during a May board of trustees meeting – temporarily shelved their proposal.
The subcommittee's proposition was, in some ways, an elegant one. Long concerned about the pollution created by the state's 9.2 million hogs, the university helped pioneer a first-of-its-kind swine-waste-to-energy project in Yadkin County, North Carolina, in 2011.
By committing to make a major purchase of swine biogas, Duke believes it could spur the creation of nearly 300 similar-sized projects – more than doubling the number of anaerobic digesters on livestock farms nationwide, and creating useful lessons for a fledgling U.S. biogas industry.
The influx of projects would curb emissions of methane – the potent greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide – and cut odor and pathogens emanating from some of the state's 2,100 large-scale hog operations. It would create hundreds of short-term construction jobs and some long-term ones in rural areas of the state that sorely need them.
But critics see a messy side. They worry the benefits of methane capture are too limited, and could preclude more comprehensive cleanup of an industry that has anguished some neighbors and polluted waterways for decades. And though many climate analysts believe biogas can play a small but important role in displacing fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gases, they say that doesn't justify the university's investment in expensive new gas infrastructure.
"Biogas is a perfectly laudable goal, and as a leading university in the country in a state that produces this much pork, it would be a very fine thing to incentivize and get going," says John Steelman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who also happens to be a Duke graduate. "But don't link that to building a new gas plant."
For the moment, the university staff is trying to figure out how to make the swine gas recommendation a reality. Their success or failure could reverberate throughout the nation's biogas market and across other North Carolina campuses with commitments to reduce their climate footprint.
By curbing both carbon dioxide and methane, biogas plays a dual role in the steep greenhouse gas reductions that scientists believe are necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.
To ratchet down carbon dioxide pollution, analysts say society must use less energy overall, and transition the entire economy to rely on clean electricity rather than burning coal, oil and natural gas.
Most researchers agree wind, solar and other non-combustion sources could get the country to almost 100 percent clean energy. But with today's technology, "nobody knows how we're going to get the last 5 or 10 percent," says Rob Sargent with Environment America.
That's because processes that require extremely high heat – like the production of plastics needed for medical devices – still rely on combustion. Jet planes and long-haul trucks still demand a liquid fuel source to travel great distances.
Thus, though he's generally circumspect on biogas, Sargent acknowledges, "there are some applications where it makes sense in the transition to straight-up renewables and storage."
Others say biogas could prove vital over the long term in decarbonizing society's hard-to-electrify elements – from heavy-duty vehicles to the gas stoves consumers may be loath to give up.
"The value of biogas … is really is an alternative for direct gas use for non- buildings, non-electric generation areas," says Amanda Levin of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who recently authored a strategy for cutting U.S. greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050.
Most analysts believe biogas will play a small part in displacing fossil fuels. Levin's study, for example, found it would make up just 4 percent of all gas use by mid-century.
But biogas would play a vital role in curbing methane. Believed to be 36 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, methane is far more prevalent in the atmosphere than previously thought, according to groundbreaking research published last year.
In 2015, the most recent year analyzed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, methane accounted for 10 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions. Natural gas drilling is a significant source of methane, but the agency's data show agriculture – through a combination of cattle digestion and livestock manure – is still the single largest source of the pollutant.
Thus, even if biogas plays a minute role in reducing carbon dioxide pollution, most researchers say there's ample benefit in displacing methane leaks from natural gas, and averting methane pollution wherever possible. Case in point: if the Durham plant could spur the creation of 289 more digesters the size of the Yadkin County one, the methane captured would cut as much greenhouse gas pollution as removing more than 175,000 cars from the road.
"Capturing the energy is better than not capturing the energy," Sargent says.
Despite the value of biogas in curbing global warming pollution, many advocates believe new infrastructure shouldn't be built to burn it – especially if used to create heat and electricity, two purposes that could be served by non-combustion renewable sources.
Fueling existing combined heat and power plants with biogas rather than natural gas – as the University of California system is considering – makes sense, they say. But a new power plant that would divert resources away from other clean energy investments does not.
"Duke is culturally resistant to making the kind of investments that will fundamentally change their energy system to something that is either all-electric, or gets away from steam as a general heating tool," Steelman says. "You're baking this added capacity into your long-term resource plan in lieu of more aggressive investments in efficiency and renewables."
Finally, there's concern that the plant could be built on a promise of biogas that never materializes – a particular worry since the proposal reflects a nationwide push by utilities to build combined heat and power plants on college campuses.
Graphic: Kaye LaFond
Undoubtedly, the U.S. biogas market needs a kickstart. According to the American Biogas Council, of all the wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and livestock operations around the country that could economically capture methane, only about 14 percent do so at the moment.
By sheer number of facilities, the agricultural sector represents the country's greatest room for growth – with 8,700 swine and hog farms large enough to economically produce biogas, but just 265 on-farm digesters operating today.
Dairy farms make up the bulk of these, most in the Midwest, where farmers have sought to allay neighbor complaints about the smell of manure spread on fields. Dry cow manure is easily collected from already-confined animals and funneled to an above-ground tank, and its energy output is high.
Hog waste, however, has a high liquid content and produces less gas than dry cow manure. It's typically stored in open-air pits and costlier to move to a separate tank. And though the anaerobic digestion process can take place in a covered pit, or "lagoon," it relies on warm temperatures.
Those factors help explain why Iowa, which raises more hogs than any other state, has only two swine-waste-to-energy projects – and why Minnesota, which ranks third behind North Carolina in hog production, has none. And they point to how North Carolina – with its warm climate and hefty hog population – has become a pioneer in swine biogas, with 10 digesters now in operation and more soon to come online.
Still, with the third most biogas resources in the country, North Carolina lags far behind its potential – and its progress toward swine gas has come in fits and starts.
Some of the reasons are unique to the state: hurricanes and the spread of disease wiped out hog populations, reducing waste and the fuel they could produce. Also, out-of-state developers with expertise in energy but not hogs signed deals that fell through.
"They look at a map and they see all the swine farms and they see dollar signs," says Angie Maier with the North Carolina Pork Council. "But as with anything, the devil's in the details. It's very difficult to pull one of these projects off."
But other hurdles are common for biogas projects across the U.S. Like all emerging renewable energy sources, swine gas is more expensive than traditional fuels – which enjoy direct subsidies and no obligation to pay for the impacts of their pollution. In North Carolina, Duke Energy estimates biogas is roughly three times the cost of natural gas.
"Biogas systems are no different from any other renewable energy system in that they have to be conceived in a way that makes money," said Patrick Serfass, head of the American Biogas Council. "That's a challenge right now for the industry."
Policies designed to help level the economic playing field for biogas have been erratic over the last decade.
After Republicans swept the North Carolina legislature in 2010, they launched regular campaigns to repeal the state's 2007 clean energy mandate – which included a small but crucial swine-waste-to-energy requirement. A bipartisan majority always thwarted these attempts, but the signal to would-be biogas entrepreneurs was chilling.
"The industry needs the regulatory environment to be consistent," says Brian Barlia of Revolution Energy Solutions (RES), the project manager for one of the state's largest biogas projects to date, in Duplin County.
Removing a pillar that allowed an RES development in Magnolia, North Carolina, to turn a profit, in 2015 lawmakers also ended the state's 35 percent tax credit for renewable energy investment – one of the most generous in the nation.
Similarly, the U.S. Congress let a 30 percent investment tax credit for biogas projects expire in 2016. After that, Barlia says, "your two main economic drivers have been put to pasture." Without them, he says the Magnolia project – which came online in 2013 – would not have penciled out.
Selling electricity to regulated utilities also poses challenges. Though a 1978 federal law requires utilities to purchase power from small renewable energy developers, negotiating contracts and connections to the electric grid is no easy task for most farmers.
"We don't have a lawyer on staff," says Deborah Ballance, who, with her husband, runs Legacy Farms in North Carolina's Wayne County, where a digester system will be up and running in six months. "We had to go out and find someone who was knowledgeable about this. It's not every day you deal with a power company."
Ballance is one of the few who overcame other obstacles facing farmers considering building and running a digester themselves: lack of capital to invest in a system that can run $1 million or more, and the knowledge or inclination to apply for government grants that could assist them.
Even hosting an outside energy developer like RES is a significant decision for a farmer. "No matter how good the deal may look," says Gus Simmons, the state's leading biogas engineer, "there's no way that doing any of these projects doesn't change the farmer's world."
But biogas proponents in North Carolina see signs of hope. Some of the Legislature's most rabid clean energy opponents have retired, while others are softening their views.
Duplin County's Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a "semi-retired" hog and turkey farmer, has co-sponsored bills to repeal or freeze the renewable energy law every legislative session since he joined the North Carolina House in 2010.
Now he says, "repeal is a bygone proposition at this point. We've invested too much time, energy, and human capital. People have complied with the law and they shouldn't have the rug pulled out from under them."
A sweeping, bipartisan clean energy law adopted this summer also may indicate a new era of magnanimity toward renewable fuels – and it includes a section prodding the utility to perform "expedited review" of swine waste-to-energy projects seeking interconnection.
Quicker reviews and connections, says Duke Energy's Travis Payne, "that's going to be a priority going forward."
Growing numbers of companies and campuses are joining Duke University in pledging 100 percent clean energy and "carbon neutrality," sustaining a voluntary market in which biogas producers can sell credits for curbing methane emissions. Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork-producer, has even committed to reducing its climate footprint by 25 percent.
According to the Pork Council, interested growers are meeting regularly with energy developers, the utilities, and university researchers to understand their options. Among farmers, there's more interest than ever before.
"Five, six years ago, if I was talking to groups of farmers [about biogas], I didn't have their full attention," Maier says. "Now, I see their heads nodding."
With approximately 24,000 feet of underground pipes, the RES biogas plant in Duplin County pumps gas from ten digesters to different domes like this one, which fuels a generator that produces electricity and waste heat. (Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts)
One of the greatest sources of optimism for biogas proponents is the trend toward "renewable natural gas": removing impurities from methane and injecting molecules directly into existing natural gas pipeline infrastructure, as opposed to generating electricity onsite.
Sometimes called "directed biogas," the approach is already being used with swine waste-to-energy projects in Indiana, Missouri and Oklahoma. It means farmers or biogas developers don't have to negotiate with the electric utility to connect to the grid. What's more, burning renewable natural gas in a high-efficiency power plant produces more energy than less efficient on-farm generators could.
That's part of why Duke Energy plans major renewable natural gas purchases from two projects within the next year. Both in Duplin County, one will become the largest anaerobic digester in the nation – drawing on poultry and food waste as well as hog manure. The other, designed by the same engineer who helmed the Yadkin County project for Duke University and Google, comes online this month.
"We're trying a lot of technologies to meet our swine goals," says Duke Energy's Payne. "But honestly we're putting a lot of eggs in the directed biogas bucket."
There is some debate over what standards biogas must meet before it can be injected into pipelines and renewable natural gas still carries some added costs – cleaning the gas isn't cheap, nor is the infrastructure needed to connect farms to existing pipelines. In 2013, however, a Duke University study found pipeline injection of biogas could lower the cost of swine biogas to as little as 5 cents a kilowatt hour.
Renewable natural gas also opens the door for additional incentives – particularly critical in the wake of expired tax incentives for swine waste to energy. If the biogas is ultimately converted to transportation fuel, it can qualify for credits under the nation's Renewable Fuel Standard.
"That credit has a value, and it's a game changer. You can sell your [unit of gas] for $43 as opposed to three [dollars]," says Serfass of the American Biogas Council. Thus, "most people are looking at renewable natural gas these days just because of the enormous revenue upside."
Yet Duke University believes biogas will never really take off in the state – or perhaps the country – without an additional catalyst: Such as a wealthy school willing to pay top dollar for nearly as much biogas as state law already requires.
Tanja Vujic, who works in the office of the executive vice president at Duke University, and helped get the Yadkin County project off the ground, emphasizes their procurement would be on top of the existing swine gas requirement."There's not been a demand signal like this before, and there's not been such a motivated buyer before," she says. "Those two things together could really accelerate things."
A one-time staff member of the Environmental Defense Fund, Vujic believes the university can play a vital role in not just jumpstarting the state's market for waste-to-energy, but in paving the way for new manure management practices that take less toll on the surrounding waterways and communities. But, she says, "it's not all going to happen in one fell swoop."
As of this publishing, the university has made no new proposals public on the plant, or its plans to procure biogas. But Vujic is confident the campus will make it happen. "That's what my job is," she says. (Indeed, in the months since the power plant controversy first blew up, her title has changed to "Director of Biogas Strategy.")
Vujic's goals go beyond the subcommittee's recommendation. Her aim is to procure enough biogas not just to fuel the new power plant, but to displace all of the university's existing natural gas use – an outcome that, if done in connection with ramping down energy use overall – might appease some of the plant's sharpest critics.
Vujic is also hopeful the university's procurement can create models that can be exported throughout rural America, as the agricultural industry stakes out its role in mitigating climate change.
But most of all, she says Duke University is trying to minimize its climate footprint and maximize its benefit to North Carolinians. When she and her colleagues survey all the options, "methane from hog farms always comes out at the top of our list."
Editor's note: This story is part of Peak Pig: The fight for the soul of rural America, EHN's investigation of what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms. This story was done in partnership with NC Policy Watch.
One Saturday in the mid-1990s, Elsie Herring was sitting on her mother's screened-in porch with her family, "enjoying being outside, as we had done for years," she says.
Meanwhile, Herring noticed a neighboring hog farmer bring his tractor and manure sprayer to an adjacent field.
"Just as I was thinking to myself that there was no way that he would begin spraying so close to us, I heard a bursting sound," Herring, who is African-American, recalled in a deposition.
The sprayer began to pump waste toward the Herrings. "We had to scramble to get out of the way. The waste had this terrible, raw, stinking odor that we had never before experienced," Herring says.
The spraying continued. Hog waste blew onto the side of the house. "If the windows were open," Herring says, "the waste would have landed in the house."
That Saturday was the beginning of the family's decades-long fight against the industrialized hog farm.
Herring is among more than 500 residents in eastern North Carolina who are suing Chinese-owned pork producer Murphy-Brown in 26 nuisance lawsuits. The complaints allege the odor from the lagoons and the manure spray fields, and the flies that come with it, have degraded the residents' property values and quality of life.
But legislation recently passed in North Carolina could undercut these lawsuits and keep them out of the courtroom. And North Carolina isn't alone: Right to Farm laws, which limit nuisance claims, have been passed in all 50 states. Agricultural states, such as Iowa, Texas and North Carolina, have some of the strongest statutes that favor corporate-owned farms.
Nationwide, the consolidation of the livestock industry and corporate political power has created a formidable proponent of anti-nuisance laws. As a result, neighbors of these industrialized farms who have taken on the hog industry are seeing their nuisance claims gutted, with few avenues of recourse.
A manure spreader applies waste to a farm field. (Credit: Johns Hopkins University)
Even 400 years ago, the stench from hog farms was considered a nuisance. In William Aldred's Case, filed in England in 1611, the Court of the King's Bench ruled that "an action on the case lies for erecting a hogstye so near the plaintiff that the air thereof was corrupted."
Fast-forward several centuries. There are a lot more hogs. The number of swine raised and sold in the United States has increased 25 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to the latest figures available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture census. But the number of farms has decreased 29 percent over the same period, a result of the consolidation of family farms into larger enterprises that are in the hands of a few conglomerates.
As production has grown and consolidated anti-nuisance laws have proliferated as an outgrowth of Right to Farm Acts—passed in some form in every state since the 1980s. Although the content of these statutes vary, many did not originally prohibit nuisance lawsuits.
Over the past 15 years the American Legislative Exchange Council—a coalition of conservative politicians and large corporations and interest groups, including the National Pork Producers Council—has drafted model anti-nuisance laws for states to use. Some states, such as Arkansas and Indiana, have adopted them nearly verbatim.
Agricultural legal experts say that states have generally tightened anti-nuisance laws after a farm or company loses a court case. These initiatives have taken the form of right-to-farm acts, legislation designed to limit recovery of damages in nuisance actions, and even constitutional amendments, according to Cordon Smart, who last fall wrote an historical analysis of the Right to Farm Act in the North Carolina Law Review.
As the livestock industry has consolidated, nuisance suits are targeting primarily the behemoth corporations that contract with local farmers. And these corporate owners have immense political power to convince state lawmakers to pass legislation favoring them.
For example, in 2010, a Missouri jury awarded neighbors $11 million in a nuisance suit against Premium Standard Farms, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Shortly afterward, the Missouri legislature capped the damages that could be recovered in nuisance suits to the fair-market value of the affected property, according to the legal journals compiled by the National Agricultural Law Center.
In many instances, these laws are used to thwart pending cases. For example, in Texas, plaintiffs who lose their cases have to pay defendants' attorneys' fees if the suits are deemed frivolous.
The top pork-producing state in the nation, Iowa, is also a legal minefield for agribusiness, farmers and their neighbors. At least 24 nuisance suits — 21 involving hog farms — have been filed since 1990, with payouts exceeding $1 million in compensatory damages for pain and suffering.
Iowa has since amended its Right to Farm law to immunize farms against nuisance suits if they are located in an area zoned agricultural. And like North Carolina, its statutes have capped damages for pain and suffering, and prevented multiple lawsuits from being filed against a single operation.
Iowa law provides nuisance suit immunity to farms that operate by "industry standards," which are open to definition. And now suits generally can't be filed to pre-empt the construction of large operations.
Andy Curliss, executive director of the NC Pork Council, says farmers prefer to stay out of the courtroom altogether. "We continue to believe that any concerns about how farms are managed can be best resolved outside the courtroom," he says.But in North Carolina increasingly neighbors are looking to resolve things in the courtroom.
North Carolina is the second biggest pork producer in the nation, but the farms are concentrated in the eastern third of the state. In the top 10 swine-producing counties in eastern North Carolina, where Elsie Herring lives, industrialized farms raise at least 9 million hogs — in an area that is home to only about 1 million people, according to agriculture and US Census statistics.
This year, state legislators further strengthened laws protecting industrialized farms from nuisance suits. Now plaintiffs are limited in the amount of compensatory damages they can receive if they win a nuisance suit: only for the devaluation of their property, but not for any loss of quality of life.
The recent anti-nuisance suit legislation passed in North Carolina, Curliss adds, "protects the state's farmers from excessive awards that could wipe out their savings and force them out of business, while preserving the rights of neighbors to sue farms that create a nuisance or operate negligently."
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This new law capped decades of conflict between these operations and their neighbors. In 1979, North Carolina lawmakers passed the original Right to Farm Act, insulating established farming operations from nuisance claims if the neighbors "moved to the nuisance."
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Democratic lawmaker and hog farmer Wendell Murphy, who served 10 years combined in the state House and Senate, helped pass tax incentives and legislation limiting county zoning authority that, in tandem, sparked dramatic growth in the state's hog industry.
That growth exacerbated the discord between neighbors and farmers. In response, in 2013, after initial filings of a large nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods, the North Carolina legislature amended the state's Right to Farm to expand protections for industrialized hog operations. The changes in state law were prompted by the enormous political power wielded by the NC Pork Council.
Largely funded by Murphy-Brown and Prestage, another huge pork and poultry producer, and their contract farmers, the industry group has contributed more than $90,000 to legislative candidates since 2000, according to state campaign data. Over the same period, the Council has contributed at least $750,000 to federal candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Under state law, if an operation changes from crops to hogs — similar legislation was passed in Indiana — a farm can still be shielded from a nuisance suit if the land is zoned agricultural. This undermines a cornerstone of nuisance law: Under "come to the nuisance," the law favored whoever had arrived first — the landowner or the farm.
In Elsie Herring's case, her family was certainly there first.
The third reading of HB 467. (Credit: Alex Boerner)
The Civil War ended just 26 years before Elsie Herring's grandfather bought his first tract of land in rural Wallace, North Carolina. By 1897, he owned 60 acres, and here, on the family farmstead, where relatives have built a cluster of homes, is where Herring, who is 68, has lived for more than half her life.
Life was routine until the 1990s, when industrialized hog farms moved nearby. She complained to state environmental officials, her representatives, anyone who would listen. After more than five years, the company that owned the hogs planted trees to try to filter odor and particles from wafting onto Herring's property.
But, Herring says, "my family and I are still suffering."
The wind, she says, still carries the odor and microscopic particles of waste to the family homes. The trees are dying, and she can see the spray fields from her house.
Herring is among the hundreds of plaintiffs suing Murphy-Brown. But it's unclear if these cases will proceed. The law passed in North Carolina earlier this year further strengthened the state's anti-nuisance statutes and now restricts the amount of compensatory damages people can recover in private nuisance suits related to odor, flies and spray fields, as well as forestry production. (The latter is to protect wood pellet plants from nuisance suits.)
Plaintiffs can still ask a judge for an injunction, sue for trespass and punitive damages, but the compensation for quality of life issues is now capped. The dollar amount is limited to the reduction in the fair market value of a residents' property, which has already decreased because of its proximity to a swine farm.
Studies in 2003 and 2005 calculated that homes within a mile of a 10,000-head hog farm decreased in value by 6.2 percent. This decrease has especially dire effects in the heart of hog country. In Duplin County, the largest pork-producing county in the nation, a quarter of all residents live at or below the federal poverty level, according to census data. The North Carolina average is 15 percent. Nearly half of the county's residents are black or Latino.
Existing nuisance lawsuits can continue — language to apply the law retroactively was scrapped. However, after the law was passed — legislators overrode Gov. Roy Cooper's veto — Murphy-Brown entered a motion in federal court to apply the law retroactively. The company argued that lawmakers intended to include this provision, even though it was explicitly struck from the final bill language.
But last week Senior U.S. District Court Judge Earl Britt week ruled that the 26 nuisance lawsuits could proceed to trial. On Dec. 4, the court will hear Murphy-Brown's motion for separate trials, which would add to the expense and complexity of the proceedings. In his order, Britt also asked both sides to consider a mediated settlement.
Curliss of the NC Pork Council points out that neighbors may also sue a farm if it is negligent or has harmed their health. There is no limit on damages for those types of lawsuits.
In addition, the current law does not prohibit a neighbor from seeking injunctive relief, such as asking the court to require the farmer to change certain production practices or install additional equipment on a farm. "None of the current lawsuits have sought injunctive relief," Curliss said. "They only seek money."
Mona Lisa Wallace, attorney for many of the plaintiffs, says that while they could sue for punitive damages or injunctive relief, there is a higher legal threshold for these claims. For example, they would have to prove fraud, malice or willful or wanton conduct.
"The [nuisance lawsuit] bill demonstrates the Legislature's complete disregard for the disproportionate racial impact the statute will have," says Elizabeth Haddix, senior attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights. In 2014, the Center filed a Title VI complaint with the EPA's Office of Civil Rights, alleging state environmental officials had not considered the racial makeup of neighboring communities in approving general permits for swine farms. The complaint is still in mediation.
During a House floor debate earlier this year on the nuisance lawsuit bill, Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a turkey and hog farmer from Duplin County, dismissed concerns that large operations were infringing on their neighbors' quality of life or property values.
"My children and grandchildren have walked gleefully through my hog and turkey houses," Dixon said. "These allegations are at best exaggerations and at worst outright lies. When you talk about spraying a fluid in people's houses and on their cars, that does not exist.
"We should get down on our knees and thank our heavenly Father. People put up with production to enjoy the benefits of consumption."
North Carolina's most recent nuisance law represents a significant setback to aggrieved neighbors of industrial-size hog farms.
The law could be challenged on constitutional grounds, although no motions have yet been filed. And, although it's a long shot, North Carolina plaintiffs could find another workaround on their private nuisance claim — and it centers on fecal bacteria.
Court documents filed as part of the nuisance suits include a report by Shane Rogers, a former EPA environmental engineer who researches pollution from industrialized livestock farms. In that report, Rogers stated that 14 of 17 homes sampled tested positive for fecal bacteria, "indicating a recent history of impaction of hog feces onto their homes," the documents read.
All six dust samples collected from the air using vacuum filtration devices at the yards of four clients — as far as nearly a half-mile from hog farms — "contained tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hog feces DNA particles," the report read.
This indicates, according to Rogers, that residents are exposed to hog feces particles even in their homes. The bacteria, Pig2Bac, was identified and traced to hog feces through DNA fingerprinting. The sampling was conducted from October to December 2016.
This could prove to be a key piece of evidence because trespass, as defined by law, is any act that directly results in a physical invasion of another's property. North Carolina's Right to Farm laws and its amendments still allow plaintiffs to sue for trespass.
Manure running into a neighbor's yard would qualify. There is a legal precedent for landowners to file trespass claims if they believe they've been harmed by airborne pollutants: pesticide drift, industrial emissions, even genetically modified organisms.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to prove harm in a trespass claim, especially in cases involving indirect intrusions, such as fecal bacteria.
If bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains, were to sicken residents, that could prompt a legal change.
Another natural disaster resulting from the hog lagoons could force state environmental officials and lawmakers to re-examine how these facilities are permitted to operate. Only after several environmental incidents in the 1990s — hog lagoons flooded during a hurricane, contaminating thousands of acres of land and rivers — did lawmakers pass a moratorium on new hog facilities. They can be built or expanded only if new waste technology is installed.
Since 2007, when the moratorium went into effect, no new hog operations have been built or expanded.
As for Herring and the other hundreds of plaintiffs, they wait as their case winds through federal district court.
In the meantime, Herring stays inside with her windows closed when the farmer is spraying.
Nonetheless, she says, she suffers from headaches, breathing trouble and depression.
"No one is trying to understand what we are dealing with, living next to a hog facility that sprays waste on us," she says. "Clean air is a God-given right, but it's a right that my family and I are being denied."
Editor's note: This story is part of Peak Pig: The fight for the soul of rural America, EHN's investigation of what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms. This story was done in partnership with NC Policy Watch.
As doctors in the Netherlands prepared a young girl for open heart surgery in the summer of 2004, they made a discovery that confused her medical team.
The girl harbored a strain of infection-causing bacteria on her body called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is tough to kill, because it resists treatment with most common antibiotics. If it gets into the bloodstream, it can be deadly.
MRSA infections were extremely rare in the Netherlands at the time. Most people in the Netherlands with MRSA had spent time in foreign hospitals where the infection was more common, but not this girl.
When the doctors tested the girl's family, they found her parents too had MRSA on their bodies. The family lived on a farm and raised pigs. The doctors would later trace the infection back to one of the family's pigs, which harbored this particular strain of MRSA.
It was the first time doctors anywhere had traced a human staph infection to farm animals–but it wasn't the last. The Dutch team found that swine workers were 760 times more likely to carry MRSA than other patients admitted to Dutch hospitals.
Since then, researchers have uncovered evidence of livestock-associated antibiotic resistant bacteria strains on farmworkers all over the world.
In the latest example this April, researchers reported that kids whose parents worked at industrial hog farms in North Carolina were more likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their mucus than kids in other communities. The new report is the first U.S. study to outline the risk of these livestock-associated superbugs to other members of the household.
Antibiotic resistance is a big problem. Across the globe, infections that were once easy to treat with antibiotics have become deadly again. Disease-causing bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics faster than we're discovering new ones. Each year in the United States alone, more than 2 million people are infected with bacteria that can't be killed by the drugs designed to stop them. More than 23,000 of those people die as a result of their infections.
Pig farmers—and their families—are on the front lines. A growing body of studies has shown that livestock and their human handlers can swap these potentially harmful bacterial strains.
Scientists now are scrambling to track where and how this transmission occurs in an effort to quell the human health threat.
LIME SPRINGS, Iowa—Sue George's home is pure country charm.
She shows me an enormous Norwegian pot that looks like a witch-cauldron hanging from her ceiling. We're in a throwback country kitchen—complete with decorative plates and antique cutlery hanging on the walls.
"When I heard guests were coming I had to hurry and find something," she says, putting pie and lemonade out.
"Oh that's Master Luke and Princess Leia," she says when I do a double take at the two ponies meandering outside the back window. The soft-spoken, retired second-grade teacher moves on to talk of her health struggles ("I had more pulmonary embolisms than they could count"). She stays cheerful until the topic turns to hogs.
Then the smile fades.
"My God I wasn't prepared for this," she says. She and her husband Jerry have led the organizing as this tiny community, population 485, has fought two large, indoor hog barns near the town over the past five years. Another one is under construction.
Lime Springs neighbors are active – they research, meet and educate. They put up signs and write editorials. But people like Sue George are up against a state beholden to livestock.
Local ability to stop big barns—which can hold upwards of 20,000 head of hog each—is non-existent; that power was long ago snatched away by the Legislature. An industry that employs thousands and pays a nice chunk of taxes each year gets handled with kid gloves; state lawmakers tend to look askance at environmental and social concerns over corporate consolidation and increasingly ramped up production.
Money talks in politics—and these days the pork lobby does a lot of talking in the state and federal Legislature.
Iowa has more than 6,300 hog farms and about 60 percent of them raise more than 1,000 hogs. At any given time in the state there are more than 20 million hogs—about 7 times the state's population. Most are raised in confinement operations: Windowless barns where pigs are kept in individual stalls.
Sue George and the group she leads, Northeast Iowans for Clean Air and Water, say the state's Department of Natural Resources' enforcement is lagging. Rules are rigged for the hog owners. She worries the air pollution will worsen her breathing problems and the water near her farm, which has been in her husband's family for more than 100 years, will be tainted.
"I never imagined doing activism," she says, adding that there's a community meeting happening later that evening at her house. She has to be careful how the gatherings are announced because she's had hog confinement workers crash them in the past.
This effort is a David to the Goliath of the pork industry's spending and political capital in Des Moines and Washington, D.C. As domestic and international taste for pork has grown, so, too, has the industry's influence on local, state and national politics.
In the 2016 U.S. elections the meat industry (livestock and meat processing combined) contributed roughly $11.7 million to political campaigns, nearly triple what was spent 15 years prior.
And while Sue George and her neighbors plot in Lime Springs, hog farming corporate advocates are having meetings, too: In 2016 the industry spent $7.8 million on lobbying in Washington, D.C., that, too, is triple what was spent 15 years ago.
State lawmakers say the industry buoys the state. Its growth, they insist, is inseparable from rural well-being. "We raise livestock in Iowa and raise a lot of it," says Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Republican from Boone, Iowa. "It's a foundational building block of our state economy."
The economic impact is undeniable. But rural folks living near the operations feel they've been left behind. And in living rooms, community centers and diners throughout the state, opposition is growing and organizers are looking to bring local voices back to state politics.
They demand better protections for clean air and water. They want counties and communities affected by hog operations to have decision-making power.
"When you're cornered you can roll over and play dead, or you can use your voice," George says.The problem, in rural America today, is that those voices don't have the strength they once had. Any attempt to reign in hog farming is met with entrenched resistance in the heavily Republican Iowa Senate and House.
LIME SPRINGS, Iowa—As large hog barns spring up around his house, Jerry George sums up the major reason he and his wife, Sue, are in opposition: "It's water. My number one concern is water."
They have good reason to worry. In a biannual state water quality report released this spring, environmental regulators reported 750 Iowa waterways are "impaired"—mostly due to excessive pollution—out of the 1,378 tested.
Large hog farms are undoubtedly a major contributor—Iowa has more than 6,300 hog farms and about 60 percent of them raise more than 1,000 hogs, which leaves farmers with massive amounts of manure to deal with. More than 10 billion gallons of liquid manure are applied to Iowa fields annually. State records show 800 manure spills between 1996 and 2012. The manure is high in fecal coliform, nitrogen and phosphates.
The situation is about the same in the country's second largest hog producing state, North Carolina, which also deals with an estimated 10 billion gallons of hog feces and urine waste each year, according to an analysis of state data by the non-profit organization, Environmental Working Group. The waste, like the hog farms themselves, is concentrated: North Carolina boasts the two highest hog producing counties in the nation, Duplin and Sampson counties. Together they account for 40 percent of the state's wet waste.
Across the U.S. nitrogen pollution from livestock manure has increased 46 percent over the past 80 years, according to a 2015 study.
And this is why Jerry and Sue are worried. They sit on a well that supplies all their drinking and cooking water and the land they live on is porous, which means manure spread nearby can easily seep into groundwater.
A number of pollutants impair Iowa waters but nitrate, which can also get into water from leaky septic tanks, wastewater treatment systems, and certain fertilizers, plagues the state. The pollution, which has been linked to certain cancers, some birth defects and other diseases, exceeded federal limits in 11 of the state's public water supplies in 2015, according to a state report.
About 300,000 people in the state are on private wells and a University of Iowa study of 475 wells across the state found that 49 percent tested for nitrates, with 12 percent of those above federal safety limits. An additional 43 percent tested for coliform bacteria, which comes from animal or human waste and can make people sick.
"These barns almost always go to rural areas, places where everyone's on groundwater," says Kendra Kimbirauskas, farmer and CEO of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.
Last year federal researchers tested the South Fork Iowa River basin before and after hog manure was spread on a field nearby, a typical disposal method. The researchers found multiple harmful bacteria and pathogen genes in the water after the application, including a surprising amount of hepatitis E.
The finding "suggests a potential role for swine in the spreading of zoonotic pathogens to the surrounding environment," the researchers wrote.
Ken Hessenius, environmental program supervisor with the Iowa DNR, says, while one spill is too many, the agency has seen their spill reporting improve, which could explain the large number. "Many spills wouldn't have been reported 20 years ago," he says. "And just because there was a spill recorded, that doesn't always mean it's reached a waterway."
But many have: Over the past decade 4,464,257 fish have been killed by animal waste, according to the Iowa DNR Fish Kill database.
Hessenius says anyone who applies manure has to be certified by the state. "And there are hundreds of thousands out there, so the spill rate is actually pretty small."
Pollution is one water problem—there's also use. Livestock accounts for roughly 3.5 percent of water use in Iowa. But in confinement farm heavy counties, that can be much higher. Sioux County Rural Water, for example, sends 95 percent of its water to livestock.
There are thousands of miles of field tile—a system used to drain soil from below the surface when it's too wet—installed in Iowa. Instead of getting filtered through and recharging aquifers, the water is transported right to the creeks, and a lot of it is carrying hog manure.
"The DNR does not regulate field tile, it's a fairly unregulated process in Iowa," Hessenius says. There is no federal regulation either.
This issue received national attention when Des Moines Water Works filed a lawsuit against 10 northern Iowa drain districts three years ago. The city utility said the tiles were upsetting natural water filtration, forcing its 500,000 customers to pay $1.2 million in 2015 alone just to remove nitrates associated with upstream farming activity. Des Moines argued that drainage from field tile lines should be treated as discharges under the Clean Water Act, the same as wastewater from a manufacturing plant.
A federal judge dismissed the suit this spring, saying it was up to the Legislature to resolve these water problems.
Another major health concern is antibiotic resistance bacteria in the hog manure spread near people's homes, says Cornelia Flora, an emeritus sociology professor at Iowa State University.
A 2009 study of a large Iowa hog farm found MSRA—a nasty, hard-to-treat bacterial infection—in half of the 200 swine tested and nine of 20 workers. And in 2014 University of Iowa researchers found that Iowa hospital patients who lived within one mile of a large hog operation had nearly triple the risk of getting MSRA.
The U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention says MRSA is the most concerning of current antibiotic-resistant threats, resulting in about 11,285 deaths annually.
Iowa's GOP-controlled Legislature has shown little desire to fix this and in fact has moved backwards: This year it forced a $1.2 million budget reduction on the state Department of Natural Resources, the agency charged with overseeing water safety and health.
The DNR eliminated the Bureau of Forestry and eight other positions, including the animal feeding operations coordinator. Hessenius says his department is doing the best they can as the industry continues to grow.
"There are not inspections at every large hog operation every year," he says. "In a perfect world, we'd have more to do more."
Sue George says the state is leaving its people at risk in favor of hogs.
"What about our health?" she asks.
Editor's note: This story is part of Peak Pig: The fight for the soul of rural America, EHN's investigation of what it means to be rural in an age of mega-farms.
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