Berlin, MO — A faint rotten-egg smell drifts off a covered lagoon a hundred yards from a well-traveled Missouri gravel road. It’s not an overpowering odor, but it’s there.
Aside from a few dirt-speckled pickup trucks kicking up dust as they pass by, this battleground — ground zero in what some see as a high-stakes fight for the future of Missouri agriculture — is calm.
But in Kansas City law offices 80 miles away, combatants prepare for another showdown over the smells drifting from this 80,000-head hog operation. Is the aroma an obnoxious affront to neighbors or simply the “odor of agriculture” that comes with life in the country?
It’s a fight Charlie Speer has waged for nearly 15 years. The Kansas City attorney has won almost $10 million from Premium Standard Farms and its affiliates in trials since 1999, and this summer praised a $1.2 million settlement with an unrelated southwest Missouri operation as having “set the bar” for future settlements.
Hog odor lawsuits are nothing new. The issue of what constitutes an agricultural nuisance has been argued anywhere hogs are raised.
The debate has new traction in Missouri, where some say flawed right-to-farm legislation encourages multimillion-dollar lawsuits like the ones against Premium Standard and its Virginia-based owner, Smithfield Foods.
In an internal memo accidentally e-mailed to The Kansas City Star last year, Smithfield attorneys estimated the company’s exposure to litigation against Premium Standard at $150 million to $200 million. Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, purchased Premium Standard in 2007.
Speer says he has at least 350 cases pending in Missouri against large hog operations. In contrast, only three were on file in Iowa, the nation’s biggest pork-producing state with more than six times the number of hogs Missouri produces. Unlike Iowa’s hog farms, which Speer says are traditionally family-run, Speer’s targets in Missouri — the seventh-largest hog state — are corporate megafarms.
“In Missouri, there is no limit to the amount a plaintiff can recover for an alleged nuisance, no matter how slight,” according to a statement attributed to Smithfield. “The potential for an unlimited recovery for a minor injury makes Missouri extremely attractive to out-of-state plaintiffs’ lawyers looking for big paydays.”
Speer contends Smithfield is sucking millions of dollars from the state and sending it to wealthy East Coast executives.
“They’ve got billionaires running billion-dollar operations worldwide,” he said. “They don’t live on the farms anymore. They never even visit the farms.”
Members of seven families, many of whom have lived in Gentry County most of their lives, are suing the Premium Standard operation known as the Homann farm. Of the 15 plaintiffs, 13 received $100,000 apiece in a 1999 lawsuit against the same property.
Their argument is the same as it was 10 years ago: Stifling odors from the northwest Missouri hog confinements and lagoons are making their lives unpleasant.
“This lawsuit is on the theory that they haven’t done anything to abate the nuisance, and we want the jury to send the message to stop it or we’re going to keep coming back,” Speer said.
None of the plaintiffs is alleging health issues beyond those associated with bad smells.
A lot has changed since 1999, said Premium Standard President Bill Homann, whose family lives eight miles from a 140,000-head hog operation near Princeton, an hour north.
“Folks that manage these farms, including myself, are rural people who are no different than anybody else that lives in this community,” said Homann, an Iowa State University graduate with a degree in agricultural education. “We are this community.”
He said Premium Standard has pumped millions of dollars into measures — mostly in response to complaints from the farm’s neighbors — to neutralize much of the odor.
“You can’t raise hogs without there being a smell,” said Jean Paul Bradshaw, an attorney for Smithfield Foods.
“Hogs smell. There is the odor of agriculture, and we think we probably do more than anyone else to reduce odor.”
Homann acknowledges mistakes made in the 1990s, including spills and effluent releases, probably warranted the legal judgments against the company in 1999. But he defends Premium Standard’s environmental performance since then.