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Roundtable raises alarm over nuisance lawsuits

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – National agriculture leaders held a live roundtable discussion Aug. 3 on how successful nuisance lawsuits against North Carolina hog operations are a threat to all of U.S. agriculture.

The roundtable in Raleigh, N.C., was shown live on North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation’s Facebook page and the event was attended by farm industry leaders from across the country, congressional leaders and other federal and state elected officials.

The topic was recent nuisance lawsuits against North Carolina hog farms that were successful despite that state having a strong Right-to-Farm law.

During the discussion, Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., said the development is not just a North Carolina issue but could threaten ranch and farm operations throughout the country.

“We have a crisis brewing in … North Carolina that is a threat not only to North Carolina agriculture but it’s a threat to agriculture nationwide,” he said. “The ramifications are very real for all of American agriculture all throughout the country.”

According to American Farm Bureau Federation, 26 lawsuits have been filed since 2014 on behalf of 541 plaintiffs claiming hog farms are creating a nuisance to their quality of life.

According to a North Carolina Farm Bureau memo on the issue, the suits are against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. Eighty-nine farms have been implicated, including 75 operated by contract growers.

The plaintiffs contend that Murphy-Brown unreasonably interfered with their rights to use and enjoy their properties.

According to AFBF, the lawsuits are being led by out-of-state, big-trial lawyers.

A North Carolina judge ruled that the state’s Right-to-Farm law didn’t protect against these nuisance claims and three juries have already returned large multi-million-dollar verdicts for the plaintiffs. The most recent verdict was announced while the roundtable discussion was being held.

North Carolina’s RTF law states that no agricultural or forestry operation can become a nuisance “by any changed conditions in or about the locality outside of the operation after the operation has been in operation for more than one year, when such operation was not a nuisance at the time the operation began.”

In his ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge W. Earl Britt misinterpreted a phrase in the state’s RTF law, said Jake Parker, an NCFB lawyer who is dealing with the issue.

Britt’s ruling has been appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals but North Carolina’s legislature last year changed the state’s RTF law “to prohibit almost any nuisance lawsuit against a farm,” Parker said. “Our legislature said, enough of this.”

Parker said NCFB’s message to other state Farm Bureaus is, “If your Right-to-Farm law looks anything like North Carolina’s, then there is cause for concern.”

Roger Batt, a legislative consultant who represents several Idaho farm groups, said Idaho’s Right-to-Farm Act was significantly strengthened in 2011.

“We really put some big teeth into it as far as protecting farming operations from nuisance lawsuits,” said Batt, who helped shepherd those changes through the Idaho Legislature. “As long as they are following generally recognized farming practices, they are protected.”

But he also said the North Carolina situation raises some concerns and the state’s agriculture industry would stay abreast of it.

“If we need to strengthen our Right-to-Farm Act, we’ll be on the front line helping out at the legislature,” Batt said.

According to an AFBF memorandum to state Farm Bureau presidents, “Farmers of all sizes and commodities should be seriously concerned that having good farming practices, following state regulations, being productive members of the community and even a strong Right-to-Farm law are no defense when trial lawyers set their sights on you to cash another big paycheck. Consumers and farmers alike will pay a price if these lawsuits succeed and the trial lawyers take their playbook around the countryside.”

The roundtable discussion was hosted by Rouzer, Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the House Agriculture Committee chairman, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and North Carolina Farm Bureau.

Numerous industry leaders were also in attendance, including people representing the nation’s soybean, wheat, cotton, corn, egg, peanut, sweet potato, chicken, beef, turkey, pork and feed industries.

During the discussion, AFBF President Zippy Duvall said he was there representing farmers and ranchers from across the nation and he told North Carolina’s agriculture industry, “We have your back.”

Duvall said the issue is personal to him” because I know it could come to my neighborhood. It could come to my farm … It could spread across America and handicap the greatest food system in the world. If it’s in your backyard today it will be in my backyard tomorrow.”

He also dismissed the notion that farming operations are 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.,” Duvall said to laughter. “The noise, the fumes from the buses, the smell of my neighbors. They’re all inside the city but no one’s starting a lawsuit there.”

Rouzer said it’s important is to increase the public’s awareness of the issue nationwide and that he and other members of Congress would explore possible legislative solutions at the federal level.

During the meeting, a clarion call was put forth for farmers and ranchers across the country to unite on the issue.

“The enemy of my friend is my enemy,” said Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. “We have to stand up for one another. We’ll help you any way we can.”

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation CEO Rick Keller said the North Carolina nuisance lawsuits are concerning and he agreed that farmers and ranchers across the nation need to band together to address the situation.

“This is an issue that could affect all of agriculture and if this situation goes unchallenged, every farm and ranch operation in the nation could be a target,” he said. “Idaho will stand with other states to fight this unacceptable attack on agricultural operations that produce the safest and most affordable food supply in the world.”

North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler described the wave of nuisance lawsuits in North Carolina as a blight.

He said that “if we don’t do something about this right now, there is not a farm in this country that is going to be safe. This has got to stop. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder nationally to stop it.”

“This really and truly is a nationwide issue,” said Delaware Department of Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse. “We are truly under attack. We would appreciate any help we can get at the federal level to prevent these lawsuits from putting our hard-working producers out of business.”

“Enough is enough and it’s time for our elected leaders to step up and stop this madness,” said Dr. Howard Hill, a veterinarian and pork producer from Iowa.