North Carolina legislators move to tighten right-to-farm law

In the wake of a jury verdict that awarded millions of dollars to the neighbors of industrial hog farms in Duplin County, North Carolina, the state’s Senate Agriculture Committee approved language that would make it more difficult for farm neighbors to bring similar “nuisance” lawsuits in the future.

New language in the state’s right-to-farm legislation would require plaintiffs in future nuisance lawsuits to show “by clear and convincing evidence” that the farm in question was not being managed up to the standards of “practices, methods, or procedures that are generally accepted and routinely utilized by other agricultural and forestry operations in [the] region.” The legislation could protect such current industry practices as spraying hog waste on fields and storing manure in open-air lagoons, which farm neighbors have said threaten water and air quality.

The legislation comes just months after a federal jury awarded 10 plaintiffs in a nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods $51 million in damages, which was later cut to about $3 million in accordance with state law. The Duplin County plaintiffs brought their lawsuit in 2014, arguing that the company’s poor management of hog manure was exposing them to health risks and a reduced quality of life. Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the country, is owned by the Chinese firm WH Group, the world’s largest pork company.

The legislation’s lead sponsors include Brent Jackson, a Republican state senator who represents Duplin County and has received more than $33,000 in donations from Smithfield Foods since 2010.

While right-to-farm laws exist in every state, they have become vehicles for agribusiness-friendly legislation in recent years. The laws are intended to prevent farm neighbors from suing farmers over the routine smells and noise associated with farming. But in some agricultural states, the agriculture industry has pushed to expand right-to-farm laws so that neighbors can’t sue CAFOs for water, air, or noise pollution.

North Carolina previously tightened its right-to-farm law in 2017, restricting farm neighbors to suing only for the loss of property value and not for reduced quality of life.