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Reworked Farm Act passes Senate, still protects farmers from lawsuits

June 12th, 2018

— A reworked version of the Farm Act, which has been one of the most heavily debated bills of this session and is meant to protect farmers from neighbor lawsuits over hog feces and other issues, cleared the state Senate Monday night.

Senate Bill 711 heads now to the House, where it’s slated for a committee hearing Tuesday. It got a significant amendment on the floor Monday night shortly before the final Senate vote.

“I guarantee you more than four people cannot explain to you what this amendment we just passed does,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg. “It’s not enough to issue platitudes. … Maybe it’s good. Maybe it’s not.”

Jackson looked up at a gallery packed with farmers as he spoke. So did his colleagues.

“A vote against this bill is a vote against them,” said state Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, who sponsored the bill.

Supporters said the changes were easily understood and that they made the bill clearer than it was Thursday, when it won tentative approval. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said the new language was so clear, only a lawyer wouldn’t understand it.

The amendment also says the new language applies only to future cases, addressing concerns from earlier this session and last year that the legislature was trying to change the rules for lawsuits already filed.

The vote to pass Monday was 33-13, with every Democrat present voting against it. The gallery erupted in applause.

The bill is a response to a $50 million jury verdict against pork giant Smithfield Foods, one of dozens of lawsuits working through the courts now over the smells and other impacts that come from housing thousands of hogs together, holding their waste in open pits and, in some cases, spraying it over fields. Some neighbors say the waste drifts onto their homes.

The General Assembly has moved repeatedly to protect farmers from such lawsuits, and senators blamed greedy attorneys and a trial judge for forcing them into another rewrite to make North Carolina’s intent clear: As long as farmers follow the law, lawsuits shouldn’t be filed.

Those lawsuits, Brent Jackson said, “threaten the very existence of farming in North Carolina.”

Lawmakers evoked family farmers repeatedly Monday night, even though it’s a division of Chinese-owned Smithfield, a multi-billion-dollar operation, named in the nuisance suits. That hardly matters, Republicans said. Once a contract farmer’s operation is declared a nuisance, what company’s going to put its pigs in his or her care?

Billy Kinlaw, whose farm of 15,000 hogs was at issue in the $50 million verdict, isn’t a farmer anymore, Berger said on the Senate floor.

The bill as passed says a nuisance lawsuit can’t be filed unless it’s filed within one year of the establishment of the agricultural or forestry operation it’s targeting or within a year of that operation undergoing a “fundamental change.” Fundamental changes don’t include changes in ownership, size, new technology or a change in the agriculture or forestry product produced.

Punitive damages won’t be allowed unless the farm operator has a criminal conviction or a regulatory notice of violation against him or her for breaking the state’s farming rules.

The Sierra Club said in a statement after the vote that lawmakers should stand up for property rights instead of disregarding legitimate complaints “just because of where they happen to live.”

“It’s unfair to remove legal options for neighbors of farming and forestry operations solely to benefit favored industries,” Sierra Club state director Molly Diggins said.

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