Animal agriculture seems to be an easy target for activism, and anti-agricultural documentaries hit companies like Netflix regularly. So, it’s refreshing to see a legitimate, fairly-reported farming documentary available for viewing. A film named Hog Farmer: The Trials of Joey Carter was released in October on Amazon Prime Video.
If you decide to watch — don’t blink. During the 1 hour and 40-minute film, each minute is jam-packed full of information about the swine industry, farming, and the Carter family in North Carolina. Whether you’re a hog farmer or not, the Carter family’s emotional journey and loss are not only educational but relatable. And, we need more of that in agriculture.
Much like many farms across the United States, Carter’s farm is a family farm. In fact, in North Carolina alone, 80 percent of hog farms are family-owned and operated. The Carter family began raising hogs in 1984, when the state began making efforts to diversify from tobacco production, building what expanded to eight hog barns on the property where they live and work.
Spoiler alert: There’s a sad ending to a story riddled with greed and misinformation. Carter had hoped to leave his hog operation located in Duplin County to his sons and grandchildren. A retired law enforcement officer and a volunteer fireman, Carter was blindsided when his neighbors joined a nuisance lawsuit against Smithfield Foods that ended in a $25 million lawsuit. In a small community, neighbors turned against neighbors. Families were split in their decision to litigate against the Carter family or not.
While the Farm Act of 2018, which provides some protection to farmers against nuisance lawsuits, did pass, it did not provide any protections for nuisance lawsuits that were in the court’s pipeline at the time of the trial.
The film follows the Carter family from the crushing sale of their final hogs and through local trials and appellate court. Testimony from the plaintiffs and their decision is a part of the documentary including footage from the family as they go through the emotional impacts of the lawsuits.
The trials weren’t just about Smithfield, they were about the entire pork industry, but the processes and ultimate decisions directly impacted small, family farms like the Carters. The original suit was filed locally and dismissed because of the Right to Farm Act. Smithfield was then sued in a second suit based on jurisdiction.
While the lawsuit wasn’t pitted directly against the Carter family, Smithfield picked Carter’s farm as a representative because their local farm followed (and often exceeded) the state’s laws, investing in modern technology, and addressed any concerns that were voiced by neighbors. Ultimately, as a result of the suit, Carter shipped his last load of hogs in October 2020, and the pig barns have remained empty since then.
However, farmers are tenacious and agile. Carters have since torn down three of the seven pig barns that their family had built. The rest are being gutted and converted into a calf stocker operation so that the farm can continue to diversify and do what they like to do — farm.
Since the suits, Senate Bill 711 was passed, making changes to agricultural laws discouraging frivolous lawsuits, and requiring that any property “affected” by allegedly nuisance conditions be located within one-half mile, and that the plaintiff legally owns the land. House Bill 467 limited the damages that can be awarded in a case such as the Carters.