DOBSON — A state senator travelled to Surry County to speak with area poultry growers Monday evening.
Davie County’s Sen. Andrew Brock (District 34) met with the Northwest Poultry Growers Association (NWPGA) to outline many of the new provisions in this year’s North Carolina farm bill. Brock is co-chair of the senate’s agriculture, environment and natural resources committee.
“We (farmers) aren’t on defense anymore,” Brock told the group of 100 or so farmers. “We are on offense.”
Brock explained that every year, the legislature passes a farm bill. Among other matters, Brock said this year’s bill has a provision that could put a stop to any frivolous nuisance lawsuits against farmers.
According to Brock the bill includes a provision that will allow farmers to seek payment of attorney fees if a plaintiff loses his or her nuisance suit against the farmer. Brock said the “loser pays” provision could deter nuisance suits.
Nuisance lawsuits were of particular interest for the crowd that gathered Surry Community College. As reported months ago, a debate is brewing over chicken houses — or as opponents call them “chicken factory farms” — in the Shoals area.
There, residents have raised concerns regarding the smell of the chicken houses and any perceived air-quality issues that result from the chicken house operations.
NWPGA president Johnny Simmons stopped shy of saying that a nuisance lawsuit had been filed in Shoals, but he did say one was likely.
After noting that agriculture is North Carolina’s largest industry, Brock explained what he perceives to be the issue often behind such lawsuits.
“They (new residents) move in and like to look at a farm, but they don’t like to smell it,” exclaimed Brock. “People have to remember where they moved to. People are trying to come in and literally just put you (farmers) out of business because it (farming) inconveniences them.”
Brock said even with the “loser pays” law, farmers take a financial hit from a lawsuit.
“Time is a non-renewable resource,” said Brock. “Any time a farmer spends in court is time away from the fields.”
Many chicken house opponents have recommended adding buffer areas, planting certain trees and installing filters at chicken houses. Brock said those measures just won’t work for many farmers.
After explaining that farmers must contend with rising costs of fertilizer, food and other necessities while receiving whatever compensation is set by the market for their product, Brock said undertaking additional costs just isn’t feasible.
“If we had to do buffer areas and all of this, we couldn’t sell our product,” remarked Brock.
While this year’s farm bill may help North Carolina’s farmers, Brock said the time to continue taking steps is sooner rather than later. Brock expects in the next redistricting in 2020 that rural areas will lose seats in the state House of Representatives.
“We expect Mecklenburg County to gain four seats and Wake to gain four seats,” Brock said of the urban areas of Charlotte and Raleigh.
He said the time to make changes which benefit farmers and rural areas is now.
While Brock said the new district map could be to the detriment of farmers, Rep. Sarah Stevens, who was also in attendance, said farmers in Surry County certainly have somewhere to turn right now.
“You know two people in Raleigh — Sen. (Shirley) Randleman and myself,” Stevens told the crowd. “Call us, and we will ensure your voice is heard.”
Brock told the group that many concerns arising from farms may be a result of a changing society.
“If you ask a kid today where food comes from, they will probably tell you ‘a grocery store,’” said Brock.
Brock said farmers must educate the public about the role they provide in society. For Brock, that role is putting food on the dinner table.
Speaking casually and on the condition of anonymity, one farmer and owner of chicken houses said his operations are meant not only to feed the people of North Carolina, but also to put food on his own table.
“The chicken houses is what pays the bills,” said the farmer. “You might do other things such as raise cattle, grow soybeans or corn or even grow tobacco, but the chicken houses is what pays the bills.”
Andy is a staff writer for The News and can be reached at (336) 415-4698.