agriculture, Environment

Contentious farm bill, which eases restrictions on some hog operations, goes to Gov. Cooper

Sen. Tom McInnis: “A hungry man is a mean man.”

Sen. Tom McInnis, a Richmond County Republican, has been known to lob puzzling remarks over the heads of his legislative colleagues, and today he tossed a few more questionable quips in his support for the controversial NC Farm Act.

One part of the bill would allow industrialized hog operations that install biogas systems to forgo upgrading to superior waste management technologies as long as the number of hogs doesn’t increase on the farm. Nearly all of the 2,000-plus hog farms in the state use outdated and environmentally harmful open lagoons and spray fields to store and dispose of feces and urine.

Since 2007 there has been a permanent moratorium on new and expanded industrialized hog operations unless they use better waste management methods. The farm bill chips away at that.  The biogas modifications would not have to  meet or exceed the required environmental performance standards. Nor would it trigger a new permitting process.

“We already see some of our companies being bought out by communist farmers,” McInnis said during a discussion on the Senate floor.

It’s unclear who McInnis was referring to. The measure’s beneficiary — Smithfield Foods —  ironically, is owned by the Chinese.

McInnis: “When we get to the point where we have to rely on foreign nations to feed ourselves, that will be a dark day.”

The US doesn’t rely solely on foreign nations, but a quick trip to the grocery store shows that the country imports a lot of food. Since 2007, according to USDA figures, the US has steadily increased both the amount and the value of food it imports. The average annual increase in tons ranges from 0.9% (dairy) to 1.6% (meat) to 5% (vegetables) and  7% (vegetable oils).

Over the same time period, the dollar value of all imported food increased by a third accounting for inflation.

McInnis: “A hungry man is a mean man, and we don’t need to be running into that situation.”

According to Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, 604,000 households, equaling 16% of the population in North Carolina, is “food-insecure,” meaning they either don’t have enough to eat or they have to make difficult choices about the amount and quality of the food they buy.

Sen. Harper Peterson, a Wilmington Democrat, opposed the bill.. “I think it’s a move in the wrong direction,” he said. “It’s a step backward and I think we can do better.”

The Senate passed the measure 39-9; the House passed it yesterday. The bill now goes to the governor.

Environmental groups swiftly condemned the measure. “This bill, like many before it, ignores the communities who live near factory farms and who suffer environmental nuisances,” said Cassie Gavin, director of Government Affairs for the North Carolina Sierra Club in a prepared statement. “These neighbors have repeatedly won in court, but the legislature keeps offering more special treatment for the industrial hog industry instead of addressing problems.”

The North Carolina Conservation Network immediately sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper asking him to veto the bill.  “We are deeply concerned that these changes could pave the way for further development of biogas, or swine waste to energy in a way that would further entrench the use of the outdated lagoon and sprayfield system as a mainstay of North Carolina agriculture—a system that exacerbates environmental, civil rights and public health harms,” the letter read.

The other controversial section of the bill makes private certain Soil and Water Conservation District and SWCD Commission documents that are currently public. Records and documents that are generated by or for soil and water conservation districtsinvolving individual landowners and agricultural producerswould be confidential. 

Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the State SWCD Commission are under the Department of Agriculture.

In each of the four previous trials, plaintiffs attorneys entered dozens of soil and water conservation documents into evidence. Some of these records showed that lagoons and spray fields were inaccurately designed. As a result, the lagoons contained more hog waste than they were constructed for, contributing to the odor, flies and other nuisances that juries determined interfered with the neighbors enjoyment of their property.

As Policy Watch reported last year, these documents contain water quality and quantity information, required as part of a pollution control program. That program is funded by the state and federal government under an Agricultural Cost Share agreement.

Under the proposal, no one, including plaintiffs in the swine nuisance lawsuits, could obtain these documents under the Public Records Act; the documents could still be subpoenaed.

Farmers applications for federal funds and the contract documents that require approval of soil and water conservation officials would still be public.

However, that still leaves entire categories of documents off-limits: Lagoon construction, design criteria, operational reviews, assessments, notes of site visits and complaints would all be behind a veil of confidentiality, said Ryke Longest, director of the Duke University Environmental Law Clinic.

The state Agriculture Department has stated that federal law allows these records to be kept confidential. But Longest told Policy Watch last year that federal public records exemptions “apply only to federal records for federal programs. State cost-share records are not exempted” from public records laws.

Brooks Fuller is the director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition at Elon University. He told Policy Watch that “what is especially troubling about this provision is that it exempts records related to the implementation and supervision of water quality programs, including the allocation of grant money and federal dollars.

A provision to outlaw smokeable hemp was struck from the bill because lawmakers had been arguing since last year over whether allowing it would be tantamount to legalizing marijuana. Sen. Jackson said the USDA has enacted temporary rules, which are in flux. “We figured that this being so contentious in the House and so much changing with the Feds, we would wait on it,” Jackson said.

“We’re not trying to end hemp farming,” Jackson added, “we’re just trying to make sense of what happens next.”

An industrial hemp pilot program, which launched in 2015, will be valid until October.

Lawmakers also eliminated another controversial portion of the measure that would have allowed farmers to allow some shooting sports on their property.

Additional reporting by Aditi Kharod.

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