agriculture, Environment

Black neighbors, white farmer (and police chief): Murphy-Brown nuisance trial heightens environmental justice concerns

Joey Carter raises hogs for Murphy-Brown on two farms just west of Beulaville in Duplin County. The buildings, lagoons and sprayfields are shown here in the upper left and lower left areas of the aerial photo. The seven families suing Murphy-Brown live within just a few hundred yards of the buildings, lagoons or sprayfields. Their homes are on the right side of the photo. (From court exhibits)

1,300 words, 6-minute read

Update: Since there are questions about the veracity of the reporting, court documents, which form the basis of the story, have been uploaded to this post. Clarification: Because of the manner in which the court has ordered the cases to proceed, the plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys alternate in choosing the parties. In the first case, the plaintiffs’ attorneys chose; in this case, the defense did. Thus, the 30 original plaintiffs who sued Murphy-Brown in this case, has been narrowed to two: Elvis and Vonnie Williams.

A t nine o’clock one recent morning the doors to a seventh-floor federal courtroom in Raleigh swung open, revealing an unspoken truth.

On the plaintiffs’ side, nearly everyone seated was Black; on the other, everyone associated with the defense was white.

Now, plaintiffs and defendants often sit on opposite sides of the aisle; it’s a common way to self-organize. But this nuisance trial, and the one before it, have amplified the environmental justice issues associated with industrialized hog farms in eastern North Carolina. Both cases have pitted Black neighbors seeking relief against white-owned farms, whose operations and hogs are controlled and owned by Murphy-Brown, the world’s largest pork producer.

In this trial, the second of roughly two dozen scheduled through the year, seven Black families totaling 30 plaintiffs originally sued Murphy-Brown, although because of a court order, that number has been reduced to two. The company owns the 4,740 hogs raised by Joey Carter, a contract grower in Beulaville, in Duplin County. But in addition to his power as a farmer backed by a billion-dollar corporation, Carter has a special status: He served as a Beulaville police officer for 32 years, four of them as chief.

Hog nuisance trials are underscoring the #environmentaljustice issues associated with #CAFOS in eastern NC Click To Tweet

The issues of race, though, are still lingering in the background and have yet to be delved into during the first week of the trial. Instead, the plaintiffs’ attorneys at Wallace and Graham, based in Salisbury, are laying a similar foundation to the one that succeeded in the previous case: Prime the jury on the basics of nuisance law. Educate them on the health problems associated with living near industrialized hog farms.  Then zero in on the wealth and political power of Murphy-Brown, including the corporate giant’s apparent unwillingness to substantially change its farming methods in the name of profit.

Beulaville, population 1,300, is in eastern Duplin County. Big Ag, including companies like Murphy-Brown, Carolina Turkeys and House of Raeford,  is a major industry in the county, but the wealth has not trickled down to the average person. More than 21 percent of Duplin County residents live below the federal poverty level, compared with 15 percent statewide. Although many families are cash-poor, they do own land, often inherited from their parents or grandparents. In turn, they intend to leave their property to their children —  if the kids can stand to live there. In court documents, the families allege that stench, insects, buzzards, dust, dead hogs and truck traffic emanating from the confinement buildings, lagoons, sprayfields and farm operations “have substantially and unreasonably interfered with their use and enjoyment” of their property — the cornerstone of nuisance law.

Duplin County, human population 58,000, hog population 2 million

“The bad smells, and flies, too, and gnats,” testified Barbara Gibbs in a deposition. Gibbs’ home, where she has lived for more than 40 years, is sandwiched between Carters’ two farms. “They ran me out of the yard one day. They did. I had to take a break from them.” Stench, insects, buzzards, dust, dead hogs and truck traffic Click To Tweet Cartha Williams lives 150 yards — little more than the length of a football field  — from a land application field, where thousands of gallons of hog waste and urine are sprayed.

Other residents live no farther than 750 yards from lagoons or even the hog buildings themselves. Some residents buy bottled water because their well water smells and tastes bad. According to court documents, feces-and-urine-laden spray even landed on Perry Williams’s house, which is 230 yards from the southern Carter farm. “The spray mist and splattering left sticky stains on the side of his home requiring him to scrub the smelly mess off by hand,” court documents read.

Gibbs Deposition by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

The farm has encroached even closer to the home of Woodell and Wanda McGowan. At some point before 2010, according to court documents, a dead box — basically a dumpster for deceased hogs — had been placed just 2 feet from his property line and near his grandchildrens’ swing set. The McGowans phoned the farm to complain, but no one returned their calls. Only after they called Murphy-Brown did someone from the farm move the dead box — but only another 80 feet away, less than the distance between bases on a baseball field.

Considering the distance between the farms and the families’ homes, the complaints are not surprising, testified UNC epidemiologist Steve Wing. This week the jury viewed a video deposition of Wing recorded before his death, in 2016, of colon cancer.

Although Wing had not visited the plaintiffs’ homes or Carter’s farms, Wing’s peer-reviewed research confirmed that the closer people live to industrialized hog operations, the more likely they were to complain about quality-of-life issues: difficulty sleeping, inability to hang their laundry on the line or open their windows, or even go outside to walk, garden or gather for events, like reunions and birthday parties.

They were also more likely to report suffering from health problems: headaches, nausea, coughing and respiratory issues. Wing testified that people with respiratory disorders are especially vulnerable to the air pollution, such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, emitted by industrialized hog farms. One of the plaintiffs’ grandchildren, who lives with them, suffers from asthma. Two of the original plaintiffs attending the trial breathed with the help of portable oxygen. Right to Farm laws, which heavily favor large agricultural operations, have been passed in all 50 states. In 1979, North Carolina lawmakers passed the state’s original Right to Farm Act, insulating established farming operations from nuisance claims if the neighbors “moved to the nuisance.”

It is hard to get away from an industrialized hog farm in Duplin County. About 58,000 people live within the county’s 822 square miles, as do 2 million hogs, or 32 per person. But in this case, as in the previous trial, the families arrived long before Joey Carter’s farm.

Most of the plaintiffs have lived on their property from 40 to 70 years, having inherited it from their parents or grandparents. Joey Carter, on the other hand, built his southern farm in 1984, at least a decade after the newest resident moved to the rural neighborhood. He constructed the northern farm in 1995 on what was then forest. (Even though there are technically two farms, state environmental officials regulate them under one permit.)

Even before the operations were built Murphy Family Farms, as it was known then, knew people lived nearby. Many of them signed a petition opposing the farms’ construction. According to court documents, Carter misled at least one resident about his plans for the property. He allegedly told Perry Miller that he was going to grow a few crops and assured him there would be no hogs.  Soon after, Miller noticed construction workers building hog houses 200 feet from his home.

Court docs: Former #NC lawmaker Wendell Murphy tried to threaten, intimidate neighbor of industrialized hog farm Click To Tweet

The defense could argue that the area already had a history of hog farms, so adding a couple more is not out of character for the neighborhood. It’s true that Perry Miller owned hogs, but only 60, on an open pasture, not 4,700 in a concentrated feeding operation with enormous lagoons and sprayfields.

Original Plaintiffs by Lisa Sorg on Scribd

Those 60 hogs, though, were unwelcome, at least by Wendell Murphy’s reckoning. Murphy, who started the the hog empire with his father, stopped by Miller’s home one day, court documents say. Murphy told Miller to get rid of the hogs that Miller was raising on his own property, and “tried to threaten and intimidate him.” (Murphy also served as a state lawmaker, during which time he got laws passed curbing counties’ authority to pass zoning ordinances regarding hog farms, as well as other industry-friendly legislation.)

In the previous trial, attorneys for Murphy-Brown implied that since the neighbors of a Bladen County industrialized farm had not complained to anyone in authority about the stench, flies and buzzards, those intrusions must have not been severe. That strategy, though, could backfire in this case. The chances that Black people could get full redress from a white police chief — in Beulaville or anywhere, let alone in the rural South — are unlikely. The chances are slimmer when the complaints are about the chief himself.

The trial continues today at the federal courthouse in Raleigh, with Judge Earl Britt presiding. It is expected to last three weeks.


  1. Lesley Miller

    June 1, 2018 at 10:06 am

    It is articles like this that create our race problems! This story is so far from the truth you should not be aloud to report anything again. You should be ashamed. He’s no longer a police chief and has helped many of these people out over the years. This is so from one side.

  2. Lesley Miller

    June 1, 2018 at 3:45 pm

  3. Steve Waterman

    June 1, 2018 at 8:31 pm

    I was at the trial and believe that a couple of facts in this article are inaccurate. I am not versed in the language and procedures of trials, but my understanding is that there are only two plaintiffs, the Williams. Also, I think the Williams moved to the property in question in 1989, after Mr. Carter bought and started to develop the land. Another thing that is slightly misleading about the article is the focus on Mr. Carter, who is not actually the defendant. Murphy-Brown/Smithfield is being sued, not the farmer. all that aside, I was also struck by the racial divide on the two sides of the aisle. I hope the trial doesn’t drive a wider wedge between these neighbors in Duplin County.

  4. Lisa Sorg

    June 1, 2018 at 8:54 pm

    According to the court documents, the plaintiffs are Woodell and Wanda McGowan, Perry Miller, Cartha Williams, Elaine and Anthony Carlton, Barbara Gibbs, Elvis and Vonnie Williams, Kenneth, LaTonya, David and Dreama Carter; Linnill and Georgia Farland, James Davis Sr and Jr, Jacqueline Davis, Cathy Pearsall, Tevin Newkirk, Robert and Sabena Carter. I did say in the article that while Joey Carter owns the farm, the defendant is Murphy-Brown. Same as the last trial, the growers are not being sued, only the corporation.

  5. Lyndsay Jones

    June 1, 2018 at 10:39 pm

    Before you write another article, make sure you have your facts straight. If you knew Mr Carter on a personal level, you would know half of what you wrote is not true. He has done so much for so many people, including the plaintiffs and it has nothing to do with their race (since you’re so quick to judge). They maybe suing the corporation, but it effects so much more than that. Thousands of families and jobs will be effected by this. Take time to educate yourself before you write another article, no need to keep spreading lies.

  6. Lisa Sorg

    June 2, 2018 at 8:22 am

    All of the statements above came from the court record, so the “lies” of which you speak were filed in depositions under oath or in affidavits. No doubt Mr. Carter has helped many people in his career, but again, the suit is against Murphy-Brown. Murphy-Brown, whom a previous jury found had acted with a wanton disregard for others, and thus awarded punitive damages.
    I’ve covered the hog industry for many years, and I’m familiar with the arguments the large corporations present.

  7. Caroline Crawford

    June 2, 2018 at 6:24 pm

    I trust Ms. Sorg’s integrity and intelligent reporting. I think there is something very wrong with the Meat Industries.Pork in particular.I have always loved a good pork chop but I will not touch anything big ag has produced, it does not taste good and the images of how these poor creatures have been forced to live pathetic lives are too cruel. I once lived near a chicken farm and when the wind blew my way the smell of death was so strong I would retch and my eyes would water and I was forced out of my garden and into the house. Even driving out to the outer banks the odor of hog lagoons has become a revolting ordeal, and it never used to be. There must be a solution to this ….and big ag has the research money to invest and they must be forced to adapt and create new ways to produce their products. I cannot imagine having to live near these hog farms.
    This week I heard some reporting about how the Pamlico Sound has become polluted because of more intense storms washing nitrates into the Neuse River, causing fish kills, and this will effect the shell fish as well…And I could only think of the Hog Farm Waste washing down into the watershed and waterways. Also consider the antibiotics that end up in the water supply and eventually the ocean. I digress, but just want to say that I think that the whole industry needs to be revamped . I think it is wrong to force the smelly disgusting hog farms on people who are poor and unrepresented, people that “no one cares about”, that can supposedly be steamrollered. I am quite certain the big hog industry is waiting to pounce on land of people who can’t stand it anymore will sell at cheapo prices, so they can grow even more pig meat.

  8. Lesley Miller

    June 2, 2018 at 8:23 pm

    If you want to write a story fine but you obviously only wanted the information from one side! No where do you talk about how this man gave these people suing him money to buy their kids Christmas or what the man has done for his community and I could go on. This is one sided and I will continue to write and say how wrong it is on both sides that would be good reporting!! These people moved here. Why don’t you interview someone who knows the whole story or has another side. But you most likely do not care but about one side only. I hope you or anyone commenting about how bad hog farms are that you do not eat pork. But I expect you think it just comes from the grocery store. Ignorance is BLISS

  9. Lyndsay Jones

    June 3, 2018 at 2:41 pm

    If you’ve covered the hog industry for many years, than you should know the effect it will have on thousands of people. Take time to educate yourself before you post one sided stories like this. In this case, no one is suing for a change, their suing for money. There was no issue until money was involved.

  10. Melissa Hall

    June 4, 2018 at 6:21 pm

    First of all I have lived in Duplin County for 43 years and I have never in my life heard of such ignorance!!! These people knew when they moved there that there was a hog farm in the area for that matter probably several. My mom works for Smithfield, I have worked for Smithfield my brother hauls hogs and we have known Joey and his family for years. How would these plaintiffs feel if someone started messing with their livelihood? Hogs farms have existed for centuries and now all of a sudden they are a nuisance? Get a grip it’s called seeing dollar signs and trying to make money off of other people. It has nothing to do with the farms stinking or whatever. If you would do your research you would know that Smithfield has the strictest bio security programs in place. They have done air quality control test and have passed every one. They are very strict on their farmers. So before anyone goes to talking crap you may want to get your facts straight first. I have 5 farms around my home and I dont smell them. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying my yard or anything. I’m so fed up with people and these lawsuits. They are not only messing with the person they are suing they are messing with everyone else’s jobs.

  11. A. B.

    June 12, 2018 at 11:15 am

    I have personally been out to Joey Carter’s farm recently. The smell was almost non-existent until you walk up to the wall of one of the hog houses. There were barely any bugs as well. I have been to other facilities, such as public university facilities, and they are in much worse condition and with much worse smells and bugs. Driving down the road, you wouldn’t even know the farm was there. This is merely a money grab by the lawyers involved. Joey and his neighbors are all victims in this case. They were all friends before this, helped each other out, and had a good community relationship. The neighbors have been roped in to believing they will receive a large payout from this, but the contract with their lawyers says otherwise. This was never a race problem until the lawyers came in promising money. The lawyers are the only ones who are truly going to benefit from this case. This case is just the first in an attack on every part of the farming industry. Where they think our food will come from once they are done is beyond me.

    Secondly, regardless of where you say you are getting your information from, this article is very one-sided. Even though you say the company is being sued, not the farmer, it is the farmer and his livelihood that will be impacted. Several of your ‘facts’ are in-fact completely wrong. At least one of the families involved actually purchased their property from Joey’s family. You really are a terrible reporter for only reporting one-side of the story. You should be ashamed of yourself.

  12. Duplin County Resident

    June 14, 2018 at 11:12 am

    I have lived in Duplin County my entire life and so have previous generations of my family. I will say that I support the farmer; however, “todays’ farmer” is so industrialized and focused on profit that they are harming their neighbors and the environment. Many farmers condescendingly joke about the Duplin Counties noxious manure smell by saying “it smells like money to me”. I feel that the farmers should have to “give back” to the environment because they take away from it. I think that all of the farmers should have to change their production habits and go back to free-range production…no one wants to do that because there is not an abundance of money in that. Yes…people have always farmed in Duplin County, but it has not always been so industrialized….that is where things changed and become harmful to the community. Farmers are increasingly GREEDY and self motivated. Farmers are not in the business to “help others” or “feed the world”….they are in the business to make money, and at the expense of others if needed. All the farmers I know are entitled, arrogant, self important, greedy, and downright mean. I have heard many Farmers say…what other job can you make your own rules, make your own hours, be your own boss, make a ton of money, and not have to take a drug test….all you have to do is get someone to give you some land and sign for a loan.

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