So disgusting and pervasive is the odor of hog waste that a researcher who was hired to take measurements of particulate evidence in and around a number of massive hog barns is still exuding the noxious stink for many days after he returned home. He obsessively washes himself and his clothing, but even after two weeks there’s a lingering smell. Until he realizes it’s clinging to his eyeglasses, which he then has to throw away.
Novelist Corban Addison turned to non-fiction in his recent book Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY 2022), but it has all the edge-of-your-seat pacing of a crime thriller. Which, in effect, it is, although you know the outcome if you’ve paid attention to agricultural news during the past couple of years. Even so, you’ll find yourself sharing the uncertainty of the participants as you’re taken through a series of some of the most momentous trials Big Ag has gone through.
By rights, a story like this should be shaded in greys. Few human conflicts ever can be seen as purely black and white, yet this one, pitting pork giant Smithfield against a group of North Carolina residents, not only clearly marks its villains as such, but also reveals that the lawsuits divide plaintiffs and defendants by race.
Four counties in southern North Carolina – Bladen, Duplin, Pender, and Sampson – have a human population of about 200,000, most of them poor and Black. As the state’s hog-farming industry grew and consolidated during the ‘80s and ‘90s, this became the livestock epicenter, cramming some five million hogs into the area. Writes Addison, “All those hogs generate an unfathomable amount of waste, equivalent to a city twice the size of New York. Yet the method of waste disposal that Smithfield uses at all of its company-owned and contract hog farms … is as antiquated as an outhouse.” It was an easy, straightforward system: dig a swimming-pool-sized hole, fill it with feces and urine and, as each pool filled, spray the excess onto the fields and magically hope that it doesn’t go into the groundwater.
Alongside all that waste, the most compelling by-product for those up close was the terrible stink. Folks living close to the hog farms couldn’t get away from it. Their complaints were ignored. Eventually, they organized, and over 500 of them hired an attorney to bring their case to court. Although the hog-reek operations were run by individual farmers, all of them were under the tight control of Smithfield, a mammoth company whose genesis is carefully detailed in this book.
By March 2013, the case went to the law firm of Wallace & Graham in Salisbury, NC. Co-founder Mona Lisa Wallace had long established herself as a champion of the disadvantaged, but this case, pitting members of poor, rural communities against a soulless corporate titan, would dwarf all that gone before.
We get to know Wallace very well through the course of this story, along with some of her family and other members of the firm. We soon meet Mike Kaeske, a maverick Texas-born attorney living in Utah, whose reputation for winning tough cases makes him an attractive candidate for the team. And what began as a nuisance suit snowballs into a political issue that reveals just how far into the state’s government Smithfield money had burrowed, buying politicians enough to force a new law onto the books seeking to prevent any possible claim for damages from a farm operation.
We meet an array of Smithfield-beholden executives and attorneys, such as PR man Don Butler, who tried to frame the issue as a matter of greedy out-of-towners trying to take a livelihood away from struggling family farmers. There’s Jimmy Dixon, a farmer-turned-politician, member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, eagerly doing Smithfield’s bidding. And hog farmers like former police chief Joey Carter, who installed a massive industrial farm despite neighbors’ objections, who played the victim on the witness stand, and who continues to play the victim to this day. A documentary titled “Hog Farmer” was released in October 2022, portraying Joey Carter as a victim of “some of the nation’s most ruthless trial lawyers,” as the movie’s PR puts it.
Wastelands is a procedural story, told with a thoroughness that reinforces its suspense. If the descriptions of various courtrooms seem a little prolix at times, it’s just a literary device to build tension as we sit in those courtrooms and experience the testimony. It doesn’t matter if you know the outcome of the story – you’ll still be swept along.
Addison knows law and he knows how to tell a story. He’s not a dispassionate narrator – how can he be? This massive corporation decided that it was okay to ruin the lives of people who lived alongside those hog farms – people whose families had held the land for generations – because those people were perceived as being not worth the attention. When a newly created country club complained, corrections were swift.
What remains galling is that this kind of behavior continues. Smithfield has yet to fully adhere to the conditions of the lawsuit. Corporate behemoths everywhere are following the same model of buying legislators even as they pick on the poor, whether it be the lack of safety regulations or enforcement of existing regulations, which makes the meatpacking industry so dangerous, or the placement of toxic waste-disposal sites – again, in poor, rural neighborhoods that can’t fight back – or the destruction of prime arable land in order to put in thousands of acres of solar farms that could be sited elsewhere, albeit more expensively.
When there’s massive profit to be made, it’s very hard to stand in the way of those with the fattest checkbooks, and, where food and the environment are concerned, the price is usually paid by the underprivileged. Wastelands is a reminder that – at least once – the good guys can win such a battle.
(B. A. Nilsson, 10/11/22)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): Also encouraging is the campaign led by Food and Water Watch to build support for the Farm System Reform Act introduced in December 2019 by Senator Cory Booker and in 2020 in the House of Representatives by seven co-sponsoring members of Congress, which would place an immediate moratorium on the construction of new or expanding large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), with a phaseout of existing large facilities by 2040.]