Side-Stepping Farmers Proves To Be A Tactic For Neighbors Suing Over Livestock Stench
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Livestock stinks. And if you live next door to a large livestock operation, you may even want to sue your neighbor over that manure smell and air quality issues. People have tried. They rarely win. Now comes news that a group in North Carolina succeeded recently by going around the farmer. New legislation in the state may crack down on even that kind of lawsuit. But Harvest Public Media's Madelyn Beck reports how its ramifications go beyond state borders.
MADELYN BECK, BYLINE: I'm outside Davenport, Iowa, at Rob Ewoldt's farm. He raises crops, cows and hogs - lots of hogs. He acknowledges that the 2,500 hogs living together don't smell great.
ROB EWOLDT: We're not growing roses. It's not going to smell like roses.
BECK: But he says they're a reliable source of revenue because they're not really his hogs. He raises them for a meat company.
EWOLDT: This is about the most steady income that we can have, is through our contract feeding of hogs.
BECK: Ewoldt started contract farming after hog prices took a dive in the '90s. Other farmers followed suit. And at last count, nearly half of U.S. hogs were raised on contract. Even so, when neighbors sue over smells, it's the farmers who are targeted. But the North Carolina residents changed that by successfully suing the subsidiary of Smithfield Foods which contracted for the hogs and won big. A federal jury originally awarded the plaintiffs more than $50 million due to manure particles and the smell, though that was later reduced to 3 million. North Carolina State University professor Andrew Branan said that's led to two dozen more lawsuits in the state.
ANDREW BRANAN: I would take heart from it if I was looking to bring that type of action because it does operate as somewhat of a blueprint.
BECK: But there are a lot of details to consider. In the Midwest, for example, manure is often injected into the ground. But in North Carolina, manure is often sprayed out over fields like in this case. Granted, there are still plenty of lawsuits over farm stench in the Midwest because most manure pits still smell really bad, and fans venting them can spread particles into neighbor's yards. Michelle Nowlin heads Duke University's Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. She says some companies pay farms so little that there's not money for environmental upgrades.
MICHELLE NOWLIN: The company very closely regulates and dictates what happens on these individual farms.
BECK: She thinks if enough of these lawsuits are successful, contracting companies might have to pay farmers enough to help them upgrade their facilities and appease their neighbors. Contract farmer Rob Ewoldt says that if large companies don't pay more for raising their animals, changes could be hard to come by. He says his neighbors don't complain because he built windbreaks to block the smell and sometimes siphons manure straight from the pit into the ground.
EWOLDT: So it never even hits the air. It goes from the pit directly out to the field pumped through a mile-long hose and injected straight into the ground.
BECK: But those kinds of upgrades are expensive, and farmers who grow contract livestock often work on razor-thin margins. But if lawsuits targeting contracting companies succeed, work to control farm pollution could be coming to more livestock farms nationwide. For NPR News, I'm Madelyn Beck.
KELLY: That story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting collaboration focusing on agriculture and rural issues.
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