Opinion: Behind a stalled agriculture bill is a farmer vs. farmer split

An overhead shot of a Sumter County dairy farm that is the object of a federal lawsuit. Waste lagoons are pictured facing U.S. 19.

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An overhead shot of a Sumter County dairy farm that is the object of a federal lawsuit. Waste lagoons are pictured facing U.S. 19.

Last Friday, a measure to protect large production farming operations in Georgia against "nuisance" lawsuits, two years in the making, was set for a vote on the floor of the state Senate.

Until it wasn’t. A whip count fell short, and the legislation was tabled until further notice.

House Bill 545 may be the most heavily lobbied bill of the session. National agricultural interests have weighed in. Local radio ads have urged south Georgia farmers to pick up the phone and call the state Capitol. Letters-to-the-editor, pro and con, have filled downstate newspapers.

In his Feb. 23 missive to the Albany Herald, Gerald Long, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau, said the legislation was made necessary by “activist environmental groups and trial lawyers who oppose conventional farming practices.”

But the situation is more complicated than that. Former governor and current Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue may have been closer to the mark last fall, when he addressed the plight of dairy farmers in Wisconsin. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” he said.

The Georgia legislation has its roots in a 2018 federal jury verdict that awarded $50 million to 10 neighbors of a North Carolina hog farm operated by Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods, which at the time described itself as a “$15 billion global food company and the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer.”

The lawsuit focused on the pork industry giant’s use of “anaerobic lagoons” of hog waste that when liquified is then sprayed onto nearby fields.

The North Carolina state legislature quickly passed a law, overriding a gubernatorial veto, that blocked future lawsuits of that sort. In Georgia, HB 545 made its debut last spring, passing the House on a 107-58 vote. Georgia doesn’t have large-scale hog farms, but it does have poultry and dairy operations that are growing by the year.

The bill would tighten the window that neighbors would have to file lawsuits against farming operations to two years after the enterprise has begun – regardless of whether the alleged nuisance (usually manure) has become one. More on that in a few paragraphs.

Georgia may be a state in flux, but legislation in the state Capitol doesn’t usually stall because of opposition from environmentalists and trial attorneys. There is a larger reason that HB 545 has run aground, which became evident last month during a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on the measure.

“As you call my district, what information are you telling them? You said this is a good bill because it protects the farmers. Tell them who you are protecting. Because I’m not getting the same story,” said Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, a former middle-school principal and 16-year Capitol veteran.

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2/20/19 - Atlanta - Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D - Dawson. The house and senate in session during the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

2/20/19 - Atlanta - Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D - Dawson. The house and senate in session during the 2019 General Assembly.  Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Combined ShapeCaption
2/20/19 - Atlanta - Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D - Dawson. The house and senate in session during the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

She has emerged as HB 545’s most outspoken opponent. Her district covers 11 counties in southwest Georgia. She lives two dirt roads away from an asphalt one in Terrell County. Farming is a big deal there.

At that hearing, Sims was addressing Will Bentley, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council and former executive vice president of the 5,500-member Georgia Cattlemen’s Association. His reply was illuminating.

“I think you have to look at — is there a difference between land ownership and production agriculture? Are you there to enjoy living in the woods, or are you there to produce food?” Bentley asked. The implication was that one activity was deserving of a little more protection.

As I stood outside Sims’ office last week, one of her colleagues passed by and asked what I was up to. I told him. “It’s all about manure,” he said.

And he’s right. Proponents of HB 545 argue that opponents are newcomers who don’t understand the sight, sound and smells that come with agriculture. But in her office, Senator Sims told me that she’s hearing from constituents who are quite familiar with manure. It is a farmer vs. farmer dynamic that has stalled HB 545.

“You have generations of folks that have been living on their lands for decades – some a century-and-a-half. Then suddenly, they have to contend with those large, industrialized [operations],” Sims said.

“I have a huge, huge agricultural district. Pecans and stuff like that. But there’s a lot of open land, too,” Sims said. “Think about it. There’s loads of open land in southwest Georgia — and we’re flat.”

She and her constituents fear that their region could become a magnet for large-scale livestock operations. “Of course, we need these,” she said. “But at the expense of whom? There has to be some regulation.” Supporters of HB 545 point to state anti-pollution regulations aplenty, Sims acknowledged – but she scoffed at claims that they are actually enforced.

Many Republicans in the chamber agree with her.

I’ve mentioned a letter-to-the-editor written by the president of the Georgia Farm Bureau. It was in apparent reply to a Feb. 18 letter that Mark Israel also sent to the Albany Herald. “I’m a sixth-generation Georgia farmer. For 200 years, my family has lived within a mile of where I reside in Sumter County. I operate my 1,500-plus-acre farm from a location that has continually operated as a farm headquarters for well over 150 years,” Israel began. “This bill has nothing to do with farmers and everything to do with further opening up our state to large corporate poultry and livestock waste lagoon operations (like the mega hog farms that have ravaged North Carolina) and making it easier for them to pollute our air, land and waterways.”

Israel didn’t mention it in his newspaper piece, but he is one of several parties who filed a federal lawsuit last July against Leatherbrook Holsteins LLC , a dairy farm that has exploded on the scene.

All of the plaintiffs are lifelong Sumter County farmers, residents, or landowners. The dairy farm, under a previous owner, had 1,000 cows in 2008. According to the lawsuit, the operation may now have as many as 15,000.

You learn the most amazing things in court papers. “On average, 6,900 mature dairy cows and 5,500 dairy heifers produce about as much waste per day as at least 350,000 people,” the lawsuit says. So the cows on that farm allegedly produce more manure than the human populations of Columbus and Albany, Ga., combined.

In 2018, a year before that lawsuit was filed and before HB 545 had been introduced, Israel sent an email to Gary Black, the state agriculture commissioner, and Zippy Duvall, the president of the American Farm Bureau – who had been the longtime leader of the Georgia bureau.

Israel urged Duvall and Black not to go the route of the North Carolina legislature. (Black, the state ag commissioner, told me this week he was neutral on HB 545.)

“Myself and my neighbors, many of which have eventually sold out to ‘the dairy,’ have been bombarded with flies, trucks and odors so strong that they literally penetrate to inside our homes.

“One veterinarian neighbor that only owned a country home and a small lot that lives about a mile from me was literally ran out of their home by the odor and wound up selling out to the dairy because no one else would buy their home. They also were asked to [sign] an agreement to never complain about the dairy again,” Israel wrote.

“I don’t want to take their right away to make a living and use their land as they see fit, but I want to make sure you and everyone else understand that their right to make money doesn’t supersede my rights to a happy, normal rural life free from offensive odors, flies and rumbling trucks on my farm that I worked so hard to pay for,” Israel wrote in August 2018.

But here we are nonetheless. It’s all about the manure.