It still smells like money

By Mac McPhail - Contributing columnist

“It smells like money.” That was a line you used to hear often in this area. We were referring to the smell coming from livestock operations, primarily hog farms, here in Sampson and Duplin counties. The response I often heard was, “It smells like money if it’s yours. If not, it just smells like, well, you know.”

My family built a couple of hog houses on our land back in the late sixties. It was a small operation by today’s standards, but it was plenty of work for us for do. I helped as a teen with checking on the feeders and waterers, removing dead hogs, cleaning out the houses, and whatever else was needed. It was messy and smelly, but it was a necessary part of our family income.

There weren’t that many hog operations back then, so there wasn’t that much concern about pollution or waste. But that changed. After graduating college, (which that hog money helped pay for) I left this area for several years while working. When I came back to Sampson County in 1989, I noticed that things had changed dramatically in the livestock industry. It seemed like there were hog, chicken and turkey houses everywhere. And there were more being built every day.

Since that time, the Sampson County economy has essentially been based on the livestock industry. Of course, there are other industries and other areas of farming that impact our economy, but few can argue that the livestock industry, especially pork production, has had the greatest impact on the economic welfare of this area. Retail businesses, our schools, and county tax revenue are among those who have benefited from the livestock industry. Whether directly or indirectly, nearly all of the residents of Sampson County have benefited from the growth in livestock in one form or another.

But, along with the prosperity from the growth of livestock operations, there have been negative consequences. The smelly and messy I knew from our small hog farm in 1970 has become a big smelly and messy problem in 2018 due to the saturation of livestock operations in Sampson and Duplin counties. Today, over 13 million pork and poultry livestock are being processed through livestock operations just in Sampson County each year.

What do you do with the waste from over 13 million animals, specifically the over 2 million hogs, which generate an especially large amount of waste? There are state environmental rules and regulations concerning animal waste, and local livestock farmers work diligently to comply with them. But there is still all the waste and the smell that many say effect the environment and those that live near to those farms.

That is where the recent lawsuits come in. The nuisance lawsuit victory against Kinlaw Farms this spring and the judgment last week against Joey Carter Farms have raised much concern about the future of livestock farming in this area. There are more lawsuits to come as lawyers see the opportunity for a big payday.

And looming in the background are the Chinese, now the owners of Smithfield Foods. China-based, Shaunghui Group bought the world’s largest pork producer back in 2013 for $4.72 billion. The costs of these lawsuits will be an expensive expenditure to the livestock farmers, and also to Smithfield Foods, who contract with a majority of the farmers. There are expensive costs due to litigation, and there will probably be changes to how the waste is handled. All of this will make pork production more expensive and will affect Smithfield’s bottom line.

What if it is no longer as profitable for the Chinese owners to have such a big operation in this area? What if Smithfield Foods can grow, process, and ship pork in China just as inexpensively as here? There, they wouldn’t have to worry about those pesky environmental regulations, or those even more pesky lawyers. CNBC’s Tim Kemp wrote in 2013, when the Chinese acquired Smithfield Foods, “The Smithfield acquisition is largely seen by China-watchers and commodities experts as a move to help accelerate the development of Chinese mega-farms by grabbing U.S. know-how.”

The livestock industry has been overall a positive asset to this area. But will it be 10 years from now? And how will we adapt to those changes? Don’t count on the answer from politicians. Their main concern is the immediate – getting votes, keeping their job and pleasing their special interests.

So yes, “it still smells like money.” It just looks like it may end up smelling that way primarily for the Chinese and the lawyers.

By Mac McPhail

Contributing columnist

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at [email protected]