A hard rain drips down the window of a farmhouse. A farmer stares at the dreary day and takes another sip of coffee from his cup.
“Struggle,” one of several ads produced by NC Farm Families is narrated by a young woman extolling the virtues of family farming. Her family’s farm, near Mt. Olive, she says, is a century old. “A farmer works six days a week because farming gets in his blood,” she says, with a touch of solemnity in her voice, “then goes to church to give thanks.”
The woman in the ad is Marisa Linton, director of engagement for NC Farm Families, a front group for the hog industry. Linton did grow up on a small farm, raising goats, sheep, turkeys, horses and pigs to show at fairs and contests. But the ad’s depiction of a humble family farm hardly represents the true picture of the state’s hog industry — or the powerful and politically connected NC Farm Families.
While NC Farm Families is registered as a nonprofit organization, the formidable industry forces behind the group are rich. With support from the NC Pork Council and Smithfield Foods, documents show that NC Farm Families raised at least $2.25 million this year for an eight-month media campaign to essentially scare hog farmers into fighting the Waterkeeper Alliance, a national environmental organization. (The NC Farm Families’ fundraising goal was $4 million; Linton did not know if it met that benchmark.)
According to its federal tax fillings, NC Farm Families is headquartered at 2822 NC Highway 24 West, in Warsaw. The building at that address houses Smithfield’s Corporate Hog Production Division, part of the Murphy-Brown empire. Owned by a Chinese company, WH Group, Smithfield’s pork production unit generated $793 million in operating profit last year.
By comparison, the Waterkeeper Alliance is a national environmental organization based in New York City, with many international and state affiliates, including 13 throughout North Carolina. Its tax returns show that in 2013, the group generated $4 million in revenue, which jumped to $10 million in 2014.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, the group’s general counsel and legal director Dan Estrin said, has spent less than $100,000 in a year on about a dozen billboards around the state warning that industrialized hog farms are polluting North Carolina’s rivers. The alliance’s local water keepers have contracted independent laboratories to test rivers and streams near large hog farms; they have also flown in small planes to monitor the compliance — or lack thereof — at these enterprises.
This is what Ed Emory of Duplin County, and president of NC Farm Families, might have meant in a May 18 fundraising letter, when he warned that “hog farmers are fighting for their lives”
“This is based on a false premise that we’re trying to destroy a way of life,” Estrin said. “We’ve never said that or never done anything to accomplish that. This is a way to scare people into writing a check.”
Estrin said that the alliance supports farmers that comply with the law and “act as good stewards of land air and water. “And there are many farmers that do.”
“Fighting for their lives” significantly exaggerates the state of the pork industry. Pork consumption in the U.S. is at its highest level since 2007, at 50.4 pounds per person, per year, according to USDA figures. Pork is even overtaking beef in popularity.
The future for hog farming is bright. Government projections estimate that U.S. pork production will increase by 10.3 percent through 2025, driven by lower feed costs and strong demand in the U.S. and abroad, although that expansion could lower hog prices. Since North Carolina ranks second in the nation in hog production, behind only Iowa, prospects are favorable here, as well.
“When we have those accusations and people want to shut us down and dampen how we do things,” Linton said, then farmers are “concerned that they won’t meet the demand.”
Emory wrote that “to be blunt, these groups have one goal: To shut down every hog farm in North Carolina.”
Asked for the source of that assertion, Linton could not say.
“I think farmers are frightened, angry and hurt,” Linton said. “There are those who feel like they’re trying to be shut down. Hog farmers try really hard to be transparent. There are several that have been in the middle in lawsuits. They’re in debt, and they haven’t been proven to have done anything wrong.”
However, the financial health of the hog farmer seemed not to be an issue in fundraising pitch. Based in Clinton, Prestage Farms, the fifth-largest hog producer in the U.S., sent a plea for money to its contract farmers to fund the NC Farm Families media campaign The suggested contributions ranged from $250 to $1,000, based on the “steady state live weight” of a farmer’s hogs. The money was to be deducted from the regular payments Prestage owed the farmer.
Most of the “family-owned” farms that the pork industry uses as props are actually contracted by huge enterprises such as Smithfield, the largest hog producer in the world. In 1986, there were 15,000 hog farms in the state, but by 2006 just 2,300 remained, as corporations bought and consolidated the ventures. Meanwhile, the number of hogs in North Carolina increased from 2 million to about 10 million.
“They’re still family,” Linton said of the contract farmers, like her neighbors, who raise thousands of hogs to the dictates of their corporate owners. “Farms don’t look like they did 50 years ago. There is a great deal of new technology. So much as improved.”
“We don’t want to shut down farmers,” said Nicole Triplett of the the White Oak-New Riverkeeper Alliance “We want to shut down pollution. The corporations they’re contracted with, it’s their responsibility to upgrade the technology.”
Improvements haven’t necessarily translated to widespread environmental benefits. For example, waterkeepers flew over several large hog farms in southeastern North Carolina on the day the National Weather Service issued a flood watch because of Tropical Storm Hermine. State permits requires farmers to stop spraying of hog waste on their fields within four hours of the issuance of a flood watch, but, Estrin said, after five hours, alliance members saw 30 facilities spraying, in violation of the law. The alliance provided photos and video to the state environmental officials, Estrin said.
“What we are actually trying to do is raise public awareness on environmental impacts of large hog farms in North Carolina,” he added, “and to raise concerns about the lack of enforcement and funding for the state to ensure that the operations are complying with the law.”
NC Farm Families is also playing the urban versus rural card, noting that the Waterkeeper Alliance is based in New York City and led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — code for Democrat. “They want to paint the picture that the water keepers are from out of state,” said Triplett, who lives near Jacksonville. “That’s absolutely not true.”
There are other falsehoods and half-truths in the NC Farm Families campaign. One of the ad claims that the Black River, which is in the heart of hog country — Duplin and Bladen counties — ranks one of the “cleanest in the state.”
But that’s not proof that the river is clean. In fact, all rivers east of I-95 have fish advisories because of mercury contamination, which is unrelated to hog farming. And a 2013 study conducted by the NC Department of Environmental Quality and the US Geological Survey noted that water quality in streams was generally lower in areas with large confined animal feeding operations, which was attributed to the application of swine manure on farm fields.
And a 2014 study conducted by UNC Wilmington showed that water quality in the Black River watershed — which includes 10 creeks and rivers and 497 registered swine operations — rated poor for nitrates at four of seven sampling stations. The Black River at Highway 210 rated fair.
Through its connections with the powerful NC Pork Council, NC Farm Families has more than once provided Gov. Pat McCrory with talking points at several rallies and meetings.
In July, McCrory announced at a state board of agriculture meeting that, “A lot of work is being done by extremist environmental groups” which, although not naming names, McCrory said, are planning attacks on the state’s agribusinesses.
“I’m concerned about what I’m seeing behind the scenes,” McCrory went on. “I’m looking for input from you [the agricultural board] about from where and why these assaults are coming. We can’t have these types of people putting us out of business.”
At the time, McCrory’s staff didn’t respond to requests for clarification, but now we know who he meant: The Waterkeeper Alliance.
In October 2015, McCrory’s cheat sheet for a Protect NC Farm Families rally showed not only the usual cheerleading for the pork industry, but also pointed denouncements of the Waterkeeper Alliance.
Among his talking points:
“The group is known for its aggressive attacks on animal agriculture in many states,”
“The Waterkeeper Alliance is leading attacks against NC family famers by paying for billboards along highways that attack family farmers.”
“We are keeping our promise to defend hog farming against attacks by groups like the Waterkeeper Alliance.”
McCrory reiterated those points at an annual commodity conference on January 14, 2016. On his sheet of talking points, his staff noted: You spoke at Protect NC Farmers Rally at the Capitol to support pork farmers attacked by the Waterkeeper Alliance.”
The latest work of the pork lobby is short on facts, but long on emotion: fear, anxiety, the divisions between urban and rural ways of life. ut in the NC Farm Families ad, “Hidden,” there is a moment of truth:
“It’s an old story,” Linton tells viewers.” “But it’s just politics.”