TEACHEY — A longtime hog grower for Murphy-Brown said she doesn’t understand why her family’s farm would be pinpointed as part of a pending civil lawsuit, the first such complaint she has received in more than two decades of operation.
Karen Knowles and husband Jimmy own J&K Farm off Cornwallis Road in Duplin County, about six miles from the Sampson line. It is one of a dozen of farms operated by growers with Murphy-Brown LLC and parent company Smithfield Foods Inc. that are the subject of civil suits alleging farm nuisance, including smell and pollution from hog waste lagoons and spraying on adjoining land.
Situated next to Corinth Baptist Church, where the Rose Hill and Teachey communities meet, the farm has been on family property for decades, operated under Murphy-Brown since 1991. The developments since last July, when the nuisance complaints were filed in Wake County, has left the Knowles — as well as other farmers — perplexed.
“Our farm is specified in this suit,” said Knowles. “The nearest plaintiff to us by road is at least 2 miles away. There were two families named in the first one, and then we got another one later on from somebody that was off Chicken Neck Road, which is behind our farm. It’s probably a little closer as far as the crow flies.”
Karen said she has not sought out those plaintiffs and, while she recognized one of the names, is unsure who they are. She only knows that no such complaints have been received from her immediate neighbors.
“Our closest neighbors have never complained,” she remarked. “These are not people that are that close to us. I don’t understand why they would complain when they are as far away from us as they are, and how did they get us to complain against, especially when your closest neighbors who live right by you haven’t said anything?”
She pointed to Corinth Baptist Church, her next-door neighbor. Deacons from the church had to sign off on hog houses to be built in such close proximity to the church (the houses are several hundred yards away), and they did. In addition to the 200 members at the church every Sunday, as well as the visitors through the week and the other residents along the road, the Knowles live next to the hog houses, completing a new home about six years ago.
The Knowles have always strived to be good neighbors, Karen said, mindful of where the wind is blowing to keep any odor impact minimal.
“If (Jimmy) knows that anything is going on, he is not going to do anything to make matters worse,” said Karen. “And in the 22 years we’ve been growing, we have never had anybody come complain to us, and I feel sure that nobody has complained about us to Murphy-Brown because I’m sure they would have come straight to us and said ‘what are you doing?’”
Murphy-Brown owns and operates 460 farms in 12 states and has approximately 1,200 contract growers in North Carolina alone. For three years running leading up to the filing of the complaints last summer, there were zero notices of violation on any of those operations, Murphy-Brown officials said.
“We have had no violations. Everything we’re supposed to do, we are in compliance with the state as far as all our samples,” Karen said. “(Regulations) have gotten more strict over the years and they are there for a reason. I’m sure there was a need to keep us in compliance and I think they’re good. I live here and I’m not going to knowingly do anything that would affect my family or any of my neighbors.”
Jimmy Knowles’ family built the first hog houses on the property, called the “Missouri houses.” The first pigs were housed in 1991 in those houses for Murphy Farms. In 2012, the Missouri houses were done away with in favor of two new houses Karen called 1224s, holding as many pigs in each, roughly 2,400 altogether.
The impact on the family has been tough, Karen attested.
“I am trying to keep it business as usual and I don’t try to worry about things I have no control over. My husband on the other hand, it keeps him from sleeping sometimes,” she asserted. “He is the one who has actually done the physical work. The land that our hog houses are on was family land, but he remembers going out there when they were clearing the land and coming home from school to pick up stumps.”
“So it’s probably more personal to him,” she said, “It is a family farm.”
And it still is.
The Knowles have two grown children, son Graham and daughter Rena, who grew up on the property, where their grandparents also lived. Rena lives down the road, while Graham lives in Brunswick County. Their mother said being involved in the civil action has been a state of “permanent unrest.”
At one point, farmers’ names were taken out of the litigation, with the caveat they could be named again in the future. “They’ve taken us out, but we can be pulled back in,” Karen remarked. “You don’t know what’s going to take place next.”
She mentioned the involvement of out-of-state law firms, which pursued the litigation before having their temporary admission to practice law in North Carolina revoked by a Wake County judge in January and were denied admission in Duplin County Court earlier this month.
However, Wallace & Graham P.A. of Salisbury, N.C. has been involved in the case from the beginning and continues to pursue the litigation. Attorney Mona Lisa Wallace has been steadfast in her belief of the cases, and the need for those with valid health and environmental complaints to be heard and have quality representation in their fight against a massive pork producer.
“I want you to know that we believe in these cases, nothing has changed,” Wallace said to the Wake County judge during a January hearing. “We believe the environment should be cleaned up.”
Still, Karen said she does not know how J&K Farms were targeted.
“You wonder how you were chosen,” she noted. “Because there are other farms that are in our vicinity that are not named, not that I want them dragged in by any means. I don’t want to put anybody through what we’re having to go through, but how did they pick these certain farms and how do you justify filing a complaint with a farm that has been there for 22 years and never having said anything to the farmer or to the company? I don’t understand how they justify that.”
Karen said it is not just big industries that are impacted as part of the civil suits, but small growers who rely on that incomes to put food on the table.
“I don’t think they’re thinking about how many people they are affecting, instead of Smithfield Foods and Murphy Brown. Those are big names … but who are the other people who work within that? Is it the person sitting two rows up from me in church who might be a truck driver or a service man who might be out of a job,” she offered. “If you take on this big business, what’s going to happen to the smaller businesses?”
“It’s not just this big corporation,” said Karen. “These are little people you’re going to affect.”
For agrarian counties such as Sampson and Duplin, the domino effect for Murphy-Brown and Smithfield could mean scaling back that would impact farmers’ livelihoods and subsequently what the companies and those farmers are able to contribute to the local tax base and economy.
“I just wish I understood what their end was. You do the best you can, you do what you’re supposed to do and try to comply and try to live within a community — we love this community, it’s where we’ve been our entire lives,” she remarked. “You would not deliberately or knowingly do anything that would affect your family or your neighbors, because this is where I want to be and where I want to die.”
At the heart of the matter, Karen said she wished she would have had the chance to improve her family’s farming operation if there was a contingent of people who felt adversely impacted.
“I would have loved to have the opportunity to know that something I was doing was affecting you, so we could work something out to correct it before we go to this extreme,” she attested. “They said this could go on for a while and, you try not to think about it, but it’s always going to be in the back of your head.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.