NC lawmakers opened the door to hazards from industrial poultry farming

Alex Slitz/alslitz@charlotteobserver.com

There were chicken and turkey farms in North Carolina before the Republican-led legislature went supine before the poultry industry, but favorable laws and rejected regulations in recent years have fueled an explosion in industrial poultry farming in the Old North State.

Chicken and turkey production surged by 33 percent in the past two decades, much of it in the last five years. With nearly 4,700 farms in 79 counties raising more than 1 billion birds annually, poultry farming has become the state’s No. 1 agricultural business.

For all its urban growth, North Carolina is still a rural state. Farming is fundamental to its economy and its character. But what’s happening here isn’t about family farmers. It’s about international corporations exploiting a legally favorable environment to maximize their profits at the expense of the state’s residents and environment.

The deeply reported “Big Poultry” series by the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer brings vividly to light the unchecked growth of the poultry industry, the hazards of the billions of pounds of waste it produces and the craven role of lawmakers in catering to an industry that is hurting their constituents and the state’s natural resources.

North Carolina’s failure to provide adequate controls is clear from how other poultry producing states regulate the industry. North Carolina, for instance, shields the locations of poultry farms, making it harder to research their concentration and effects. It also doesn’t allow counties to restrict the siting of poultry farms. Georgia, the nation’s leader in raising poultry for slaughter, does. The idea is to protect residents who would be affected by a new operation raising poultry on an industrial scale.

Ursula Richardson, the zoning administrator in Georgia’s Gordon County, explained where the line is drawn. “We need farming,” she said, “not industrial pollution.”

North Carolina’s legislative leaders apparently accept that allowing industrial pollution comes with encouraging industrial farming. Along with poultry, they have coddled the state’s massive hog industry with laws shielding hog farms from nuisance suits even as the operations degrade the environment and the quality of life in several eastern North Carolina counties.

Restrictions on farm-related nuisance lawsuits and limits on the amounts plaintiffs can collect also help the poultry farms avoid paying a price for air and water pollution and disruptive truck traffic. The Big Poultry series reported that about 230,000 North Carolinians live within a half-mile of a poultry farm, but there is little they can know or do about what happens there.

Lawmakers are not alone in protecting the excesses of industrial farming. Steve Troxler, North Carolina’s longtime agricultural commissioner, defends the massive hog and poultry operations, even as they hurt property values and impair the health of rural residents. He declined to speak with the series’ reporters about criticisms of the poultry industry, but he said in a statement that in a time of growing food demand, “We would hate to see anything damage our farmers’ ability to produce food.”

Republican lawmakers and the agriculture commissioner are not serving North Carolina by luring industrial farming with the promise that agribusinesses can expect little interference from state regulations or residents’ lawsuits. North Carolina’s economy is changing and thriving with the growth of industries involving information technology, bioscience, financial services, tourism, manufacturing and housing. There’s no need to sacrifice the state’s natural resources – and its national image – to attract any more jobs and taxes gained from industrial farming.

This is a farming state. It’s good to have farmers who raise hogs and poultry, but it should be on a safe scale with regulations that put people and the environment first.