Pork powerhouse wins nuisance lawsuits

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A trial-court judge has ruled in favor of one of the nation’s largest pork producers in four nuisance lawsuits brought by neighbors of industrial hog farms in Randolph County.

The inventory of hogs and pigs in Randolph County more than tripled, from 55,443 to 177,605, between 2007 and 2012, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.

That sparked nuisance lawsuits against Goldsboro, N.C.-based Maxwell Foods, aka Maxwell Farms, which operates Buena Vista Sow Farm; Unionport Nursery Farm; Stone Road Farms; and Gary Foulke’s farm, all of which began production in the 2007-08 time frame.

Maxwell branched out to Indiana after North Carolina enacted a ban on construction of big hog farms because of environmental degradation, says Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

In addition, North Carolina’s livestock industry uses more corn than is produced in the state. “They said, ‘We have to get our pigs to the corn,” Hurt said. “If North Carolina wanted expansion, they were not going to be able to do it in North Carolina.”

The lawsuits accuse Maxwell and other defendants of allowing hog waste to accumulate and “noxious fumes and odors to discharge from and be sensed beyond the boundaries of their property.”

But Special Judge Marianne Vorhees, of Delaware Circuirt Court 1, ruled the Indiana Right to Farm Act is constitutional. “Plaintiffs’ nuisance action can proceed only if they produce evidence that defendants were negligent, and defendants’ negligence was the cause of the odors,” Vorhees ruled. “Plaintiffs admitted they have no such evidence.”

In a news release, Joe Baldwin, operations manager for Maxwell Farms, said, “During the last five years we have had to defend our agriculture practices, which are commonly practiced throughout the Midwest in swine-producing communities. We find it unfortunate that a few individuals have attempted to discredit our industry despite the fact that Maxwell Farms maintains an excellent environmental record in the state of Indiana and establishes high standards that our contract grower families are expected to meet.”

Indianapolis attorney Rich Hailey, who represents the dozen plaintiffs, told The Star Press, “These are industrialized facilities. They are not family farms. The uncontroverted truth is all the plaintiff were living in those areas first (before the hog operations). Many had owned these properties for generations. These are people who grew up in the country. One day they looked out and had 4,000 to 8,000 hogs putting out 3 million gallons of untreated waste.”

The Right to Farm Act protects farmers if certain conditions are met, including “no significant change occurred in the type of agricultural operation on the locality.”

Under Indiana law, “changing from crop production to hog production does not constitute a significant change,” Vorhees ruled. She granted Maxwell a pre-trial summary judgment.

All of the farm land on which the hog barns were built has been used continuously as farms since at least the 1950s, and some of the land has been in farming for more than a century.

The hog operations targeted by the lawsuits include a farm where pregnant female sows and their piglets are housed (when the piglets are three weeks old, or 14 pounds, Maxwell transfers them to a nursery farm); a nursery farm that the piglets leave when reaching 55 pounds; and finishing barns that the hogs leave for market after reaching 260 pounds in 20 weeks.

Waste falls into pits inside the barns.

“They take a big fan and blow the air out of those buildings,” Hailey said. “If they didn’t blow the noxious gases and odors from the buildings it would be fatal to workers and to the animals. Worse yet, they spread the waste on top of the soil, claiming it is fertilizer. It is fertilizer. So is human waste, but you’re not allowed to spread that on your lawn.”

Hailey said an appeal of the ruling is likely.

Successful Farming magazine ranked Maxwell Foods 11th in its “Top 25 U.S. Pork Powerhouses” in 2013. Maxwell ranked behind powerhouses like first place Smithfield Foods and eighth place Cargill but ahead of powerhouses including Tyson Foods and Hormel Foods.

In 2012, 2.6 million pigs were imported into Indiana, mostly young pigs coming into the state to be finished, Hurt said. More than 800,000 of those imported pigs came into Indiana from North Carolina, which sent more pigs to Indiana than any other state. Illinois was second, shipping 564,000 pigs to the Hoosier state.

“They’re pretty cheap to transport because they’re so small,” Hurt said.


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