How the Right to Farm Became the Right to Harm

by Siena Chrisman


In the forthcoming film, Right to Harm, North Carolina resident and activist Elsie Herring describes the hog operation that has been spraying manure onto her family’s ancestral land since 1986. The hogs, housed in two huge barns, produce millions of gallons of fecal waste every year, which is stored in open ponds and sprayed onto farm fields so the ponds don’t overflow. Herring vividly remembers the first time the manure was sprayed; the sound of the sprayer, the stench, and the horror as the family realized what was happening. The spraying is now a regular occurrence, but it is no less dehumanizing every time.

“Where do you go in this world,” Herring wonders in the film, “Where people blow animal waste on another person?”

The answer, well-known to Herring and rural community residents across the country, is: nearly anywhere in rural America.

In the forthcoming film, Right to Harm, North Carolina resident and activist Elsie Herring describes the hog operation that has been spraying manure onto her family’s ancestral land since 1986.

The Right to Harm

In the 1970s, city residents moving to the country looking for a quieter life were often surprised by the sounds, smells and sights of the farms in their new communities. Some of them sued these operations on the grounds of being a nuisance, and some farmers went out of business defending themselves from the lawsuits. As increasing numbers moved out of the city and suburban sprawl encroached onto agricultural land, state governments wanting to formally recognize the importance of agriculture to the economy and community passed laws guaranteeing the “right to farm.” By 1992, every state had a right to farm law. Though the laws varied widely in specifics, their overall goal was to protect farmers from so-called “nuisance lawsuits” brought by new neighbors.

Today, however, right to farm laws have been weaponized against rural communities. In many states, far-reaching versions of the laws are used to protect factory farms, formally known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), massive barns housing thousands or tens of thousands of animals. Many CAFOs use a “lagoon and sprayfield” model like Elsie Herring’s neighbor, storing the waste in ponds and spraying it on farm fields (and wherever else the wind blows) to dispose of it. Poultry CAFOs, housing birds raised for meat or egg-laying hens, blow manure-infused air out of the barns with huge fans. In addition to the extraordinary volumes of waste, CAFOs come with an increase in heavy truck traffic, disposal of dead animals and more. These operations are called factory farms for a reason: they pollute the air and water with industrial-level waste, in the form of toxic gasses, dust, dangerous chemicals and bacteria, often in combination with noise and odor more associated with an industrial corridor than a country byway.

Terms to Know
Right to Farm Laws
By 1992, every state had a right to farm law. Though the laws varied widely in specifics, their overall goal was to protect farmers from so-called “nuisance lawsuits” brought by new neighbors. Today, right to farm laws have been weaponized against rural communities.

“A Prisoner in Her Own Home”

When a factory farm moves in or expands, the lives of its neighbors are turned upside down. They can no longer go outdoors because of the smells and flies. People living near a CAFO are at high risk for a range of illnesses, including severe respiratory problems, nausea and even cancer. Leaking lagoons or manure runoff can pollute the water table, forcing residents to buy water or switch from a well to town water, at added expense. Property values of homes near a CAFO can drop as much as 88 percent, leaving people trapped in a home they can no longer sell.

In a recent conversation, Elsie Herring tells me that researchers testing her home found hog feces on the inside of her refrigerator. Because of the particles and the gasses in the waste, her family has respiratory problems, headaches, nausea and other health impacts.

“It really just takes your breath away,” Herring says of the smell. Her mother, who died in 2001 after living 99 years on the same land, “became a prisoner in her own home,” unable to even sit on the porch because the stench and the flies were so bad. After the hog operator sprays, “You can see the manure glistening on the screens.”

She describes driving down the road behind a so-called “dead truck” that hauls away bodies of hogs that have died. “The odor lingers until that truck is way out of sight,” she says.

What Is Industrial Livestock Production?

Pig in cage

The pastures and red barns we so fondly imagine are a far cry from industrialized farms today, which house animals in vast quantities in cramped, inhumane conditions.

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Laws that Help the Hog Industry, Made by the Industry

In The Right to Harm, similar scenes play out in rural communities from Arizona to Maryland as CAFOs move in, protected by laws originally intended to preserve rural character. So how did right to farm laws get turned on their heads, allowing animal factories to operate with impunity?

In North Carolina, laws protecting CAFOs were literally written by hog industry interests. Wendall Murphy, a hog magnate who served in the state legislature for most of the 1980s, “helped pass laws worth millions of dollars to his company and his industry,” according to a 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the state’s hog industry. The state’s right to farm law specifically prohibits local governments from declaring agricultural operations a nuisance and bars county public health officials from challenging new or expanding operations.

Iowa passed a right to farm law in 1995 that similarly limits local regulation of CAFOs, backed by that state’s own powerful pork industry, and comparable laws have swept through many other farm states in the decades since. North Dakota and Missouri now have constitutional amendments guaranteeing the right to farm, and many rural counties and municipalities have adopted their own language.

These laws were pushed by agribusiness interests in each case, in some states backed by the corporate lobbying group American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC promotes an especially business-friendly model Right to Farm Act for state legislatures to adopt. Some of its provisions restrict lawsuits even if an operation makes major changes like adding thousands more animals or building a new manure storage lagoon. Overall, the laws aim to severely limit the legal recourse available to factory farm neighbors and surrounding community. Several states use ALEC’s exact language in their laws; many others use variations.

Neighbors Fighting Back Against CAFOs

Herring moved home in 1993 to care for her aging mother and her brother, who had Down syndrome. Horrified by the situation her family was living with, she began making calls to see who could put a stop to it: to the sheriff and the local health department, who said they couldn’t do anything, and to the state environmental agencies, which stopped taking her calls.

“They have all the right people in all the right places,” she said of the pork industry. “When you have all these people—and the money—on your side, it’s a challenge” for community members like her to fight back.


The percentage that the property values of homes near a CAFO can drop

In some states, industry greed is layered on top of centuries of racism. Like many polluting industries, factory farms are often disproportionally sited in minority communities. A 2014 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study found that African-Americans and other minorities are 1.5 times more likely than white people to live near an industrial hog operation. Herring lives in Duplin County, the top hog-producing county in the US, which is nearly half non-white and where swine operations and poultry houses proliferate, sometimes on the same land and sometimes right near a landfill as well. “Everywhere there are these dirty industries, they are primarily located in minority communities,” she says.

The hog operation spraying on Herring is not just figuratively in her backyard, it is actually on her family’s land. She says the operator manipulated documents at the Registry of Deeds in order to take the land. Her family is the only Black landowner on the road, and she believes the placement of the hog operation is intended to force them out so the land can be sold for development.

Despite the powerful meat industry interests that continue to dominate the state, Herring has never stopped fighting back, with organizations like the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH). She is a party to one of 26 nuisance lawsuits filed in North Carolina against pork giant Smithfield. The five cases that have gone to trial have all been found in favor of the plaintiffs, though in response, the state legislature has passed a measure to make it even harder to file a complaint or a lawsuit against a CAFO.

A National Movement to Fight Right to Farm Laws

In Right to Harm, agricultural economist John Ikerd discusses moving to the small community of Fairfield, Iowa, and his decision to live in town rather than in the countryside. “I wouldn’t move anywhere outside of a town limit [in rural America],” he says. “Because of the fear that a CAFO would come in.”

The same nightmare of manure stench, noxious gasses and polluted water that Elise Herring and her family live with is the daily reality for rural residents across the country, from North Carolina to Iowa and beyond, thanks to laws written by the industrial livestock industry for their private gain.

But across the country, people are also fighting back: talking to their neighbors, learning about land use regulations, speaking out at county meetings, demanding accountability from their elected officials, forcing hearings at the state house or in Washington, DC. Right to Harm takes us to six of these communities, examining the laws that allow CAFOs and highlighting groups like NCEJN who are fighting back.

The film is a revealing look at the power of these laws, which are a nearly invisible part of the infrastructure propping up the factory farm industry—often unknown even in rural communities, until operators of a huge planned CAFO buy a piece of property and it turns even the county board has no legal recourse to stop its construction.

The film is also a reminder of a power of citizen organizing.

“I see the future leadership of our rural communities rising up from the people standing up and resisting the CAFOs,” John Ikerd says in the film. Elsie Herring is tired after 25 years of organizing against the meat industry, one of the most powerful forces in the nation, but, she says, “We’re still in the fight.” She could be speaking for NCEJN, or any of the nearly 200 rural grassroots groups—including SRAP, and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center—around the country working to protect their communities from the ravages of factory farms.

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