agriculture, Commentary

Farmworkers’ wages threatened by Trump administration’s inaction 

The middle of a pandemic is a particularly challenging time for low-wage workers to take a pay cut, but the 205,000 farmworkers across the country could face that dire situation next year. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture abruptly decided to cancel its annual survey of farmworker wages, throwing 2021 wage rates for both H-2A temporary foreign workers and their U.S. counterparts into uncertainty — and farmworkers and advocates are scrambling.  The survey is used to set what is called the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, or AEWR, that growers must pay to the  H-2A workers and to any U.S. workers performing the same job. 

The Adverse Effect Wage Rate is designed to prevent agricultural employers from being incentivized to hire foreign labor at lower wages, to the detriment of local workers. Te AEWR is set annually for each state based on the USDA survey. North Carolina’s hourly rate is $12.67 — ranking 34th among all states. (The rates for the Southeast and Deep South are much lower than much of the US; North Carolina is first among those states, tied with Virginia.) 

 Over the years, there have been many attempts, legislative and administrative, to reduce the AEWR or allow growers to pay lower wages in some other way. It’s possible that H-2A workers could see their pay cut to the federal minimum wage of just $7.25 an hour; North Carolina’s minimum is the same as the federal rate.

Scuttling the wage survey is the latest maneuver to placate the agricultural industry at the expense of the workers who put food on our tables. 

agriculture, Environment

DEQ levies largest fine in eight years on Sampson County hog farm

B&L Farms, an industrialized swine operation near Spivey’s Corner in Sampson County, was fined more than $87,698 by state regulators today for a waste lagoon breach that spilled 3 million gallons of feces and urine into nearby waterways and wetlands, killing at least 1,000 fish.

The spill occurred on June 12. DEQ investigators found that Bryan McLamb, who is permitted to raises 2,580 hogs at the farm, had allowed the level of waste to reach the top of the lagoon berm “for a prolonged period of time.” McLamb also failed to keep accurate spraying records and did not regularly inspect the lagoon levels.

McLamb is a contract grower for Smithfield Foods.

After the spill, testing by DEQ showed extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria — at least 3,000 times higher than water quality standards — downstream.

“The egregious nature of the violations and the severity of the environmental harm in this case require a serious penalty that holds the owner accountable for not operating in compliance with their permit conditions and the laws of North Carolina,” said DEQ Secretary Michael S. Regan in a prepared statement.

The B&L fine is the largest assessed on any concentrated animal feeding operation since at least 2012. In 2018, DEQ penalized Lanier Farms of Jones County $64,000 for an extensive history of noncompliance resulting in a 1 million gallon spill into the Trent River. Lanier also was a Smithfield contract grower. Facing Clean Water Act violations, the company later removed its hogs from Lanier’s operation.

agriculture, Environment

State ag officials: Dicamba also contaminated compost, but original source remains unknown

Anastasia Maddox’s tomato plants curled as the result of herbicide poisoning of compost she had used on her garden. (Photo filed by Maddox with her public comments to the EPA)

A state Department of Agriculture investigation found powerful herbicides Dicamba — now banned — and Clopyralid in several compost samples that killed and damaged plants in dozens of gardens and small farms in North Carolina. However, investigators could not identify the original source of contamination.

Policy Watch reported last month that McGill Environmental in Chatham County unknowingly sold the tainted compost under the name “Certified Soilbuilder” to garden shops in the Triad and Triangle, where people purchased the product.

McGill officials speculated some of the contamination came from yard waste that had been sprayed with pesticides. That waste was then collected by municipalities and delivered to McGill to be used as feedstock to make the compost.

Sydney Ross, pesticide operations specialist with the state Department of Agriculture, said the agency received 85 complaints related to contaminated compost from McGill. Two samples detected Dicamba and another taken  detected trace amounts of Clopyralid; all other samples taken did not detect the presence of any pesticides.

In its own investigation, McGill found Clopyralid in the compost.

Manufactured by Bayer, Dicamba has a troublesome 50-year history. Farmers previously avoided spraying the herbicide during warm, dry weather because it is prone to drifting and can harm crops and yards that weren’t the target of the spray.

Four years ago, the EPA approved an expansion of its use on soybeans that had been genetically modified to be tolerant of the chemical. As a result, millions of acres were sprayed nationwide, while the number of complaints skyrocketed, mostly from farmers and orchard and vineyard owners who said their crops had been damaged or killed by drift.

In June, a federal court ruled that it is no longer legal to sell Dicamba. However, farmers are allowed to use any of their remaining inventory. Some states have implemented restrictions, though, on how and when Dicamba can be sprayed.

Bayer recently allocated $400 million toward a settlement for alleged crop damage in the Midwest, beginning in 2015.

Manufactured by Dow AgroSciences, and now its spinoff company Corteva, Clopyralid is a persistent and powerful herbicide. Some states and municipalities have banned it outright. But in North Carolina, it can legally be applied to alfalfa and turf fields, as well on right-of-ways.

Without knowing the original source of the pesticides, the agriculture department could not determine if there were violations of state pesticide law. The cases are now closed, Ross said.

agriculture, Environment

1,000+ dead fish: DEQ releases more troubling details on hog lagoon spill

Three million gallons of hog feces and urine killed more than 1,000 fish in Wagner Ditch/Plainveiw Pond, a half-mile from B&L Farms. Waste were also found in wetlands near Starlins Swamp, 1.35 miles away.

The breach of a hog lagoon that spilled 3 million gallons of feces and urine into streams, ponds and wetlands in the Cape Fear River Basin killed at least 1,000 fish — and occurred because of neglect and mismanagement.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality released more details yesterday about a June 12 spill at B&L Farms, north of Spivey’s Corner in Sampson County. Investigators found that Bryan McLamb, who raises hogs form Smithfield Foods, had allowed the level of waste to reach the top of the lagoon berm “for a prolonged period of time.”

According to their environmental permits, all farms must keep waste at certain levels below the top of the berm to prevent it from overflowing, especially when it rains. To accomplish this, farms pump the lagoon through spray the waste on their fields.

The day before the breach, it had rained 2 inches at the farm.

But McLamb chronically failed to manage the lagoon, investigators found. The waste levels had been so high and for such a long time that the earthen lagoon berm was saturated and “notably soft” when walked on. Vegetation along the crest of the berm had died because it had been inundated by the feces and urine.

And after the previous rain, McLamb did not inspect the lagoon to ensure it was intact and not overflowing. The lagoon marker had also been installed incorrectly, so the measurements were inaccurate.

As a result, on the morning of June 12, a Smithfield crew that had arrived at the farm to remove some pigs for slaughter, discovered the breach. But there were further delays in notifying the state. The crew relayed information first to Smithfield; at 9:40 a.m. Smithfield then called McLamb, who went to the farm to confirm the breach. McLamb then called the farm’s technical specialist, Curtis Barwick, who called DEQ shortly after 11.

By the time DEQ investigators arrived at the farm at 12:40 p.m. 3 million gallons of feces and urine had “coursed overland into wetlands, and surface waters, including Starlins Swamp, 1.35 miles from the lagoon. Investigators also documented waste and dead fish in the Wagner Pond about a half-mile from the lagoon, where there were “a minimum of one thousand dead fish including brim, catfish, bass, an eel, and other panfish.” Hog feces “were also documented in wetlands.”

Policy Watch reported earlier this week that subsequent testing by DEQ showed extremely high levels of fecal coliform bacteria — at least 3,000 times higher than water quality standards — in waters downstream.

In addition to neglecting the lagoon, McLamb had also failed to keep proper records of lagoon levels and spraying. Nor did he ever notify DEQ that his lagoon was too full, as required, even though McLamb said it had been for several months.

DEQ cited McClamb for multiple violations. He has 20 days to submit additional information and a written response. Afterward, DEQ will determine the fine.

agriculture, Environment

Sampling results show extremely high levels of hog feces, urine in waterways after lagoon breach

DEQ sampling sites after a hog lagoon breach at B&L Farms in Sampson County.

Levels of fecal bacteria at least as high as 3,000 times the state standard were found in ditches and waterways after a hog lagoon spill in Sampson County in June, state environmental sampling shows.

On June 12, the lagoon at B&L Farms, 2525 Plainview Highway, north of Spivey’s Corner, partially breached. Three million gallons of feces and urine flowed onto  the farm property into a ditch that leads to Starlins Swamp, part of the Cape Fear River Basin.

According to state records, the farm is permitted to house as many as 2,580 swine. It has one lagoon, approximate two acres in size and 10 feet deep.

Sampling results released today from four downstream locations showed fecal coliform levels on the day of the spill ranged from 20,000 colony forming units of fecal bacteria, or CFUs to 380,000. At the farm, levels of fecal bacteria reached at least 600,000 CFUs, which would be expected considering it was the source of the spill.

State surface freshwater quality standards limit fecal coliform to 200 colony forming units, or CFUs, based upon at least five consecutive samples examined during any 30-day period. Nor can these concentrations exceed 400 CFUs in more than 20% of the samples examined during that time.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality sampled over eight days, June 12 to June 25.

The levels of fecal bacteria varied during that time, initially declining before rebounding in some instances. Even 10 days after the spill, all the sampling stations except for Mill Pond showed levels well above state standards.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia were also detected, but there are no state or federal numeric standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia in surface water.

The agency is still working on a Notice of Violation, DEQ spokesman Robert Johnson said.