Maggie Dees: Can the little guy ever win?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 31, 2022

By Maggie Dees

“Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial” (Penguin Random House, June 2022) by Corban Addison turns the detailed legal journey of 500 eastern North Carolinians who filed nuisance lawsuits against numerous factory farms, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), into an exposé of the injustices of hog farming in North Carolina. The suit takes on Smithfield Food, the corporation with which each farm suffering the “nuisance” of stench, polluted water, air, and soil is under contract. Mona Wallace, an energetic, fast-talking and successful attorney with Wallace and Graham agrees to take on the Goliath that is Smithfield because she understands the importance of “compensating the plaintiffs for past injuries and fixing the industry for the benefit of future generations.”

Addison is careful to show how these cases were more than just the nuisance lawsuits they appeared to be on paper. Legal action is the final result of the perseverance of North Carolinians throughout decades of being ignored by those meant to represent them; it is the culmination of a persistent, dogged struggle by numerous people to improve their quality of life. The personal stories of those affected and the opposition they faced lift this legal saga into a compelling narrative worthy of John Grisham whose Introduction graces the book. Central to the tale is Elsie Herring, whose land was inherited from her formerly enslaved grandfather. Herring moved back to Duplin County to take care of her elderly mother and a brother with Down syndrome. Instead of returning to the home she grew up in and loved, she found her home disrupted by a CAFO. She immediately began her decades long battle to restore peace in her own and her neighbors’ homes. Elsie Herring wanted a home where her mom and brother could live comfortably and happily, but that was no longer the case. Like others in Wastelands, Herring had been ignored by her own representatives for years. The only one that tried to help was ousted from office by Smithfield. That’s when Mona Wallace and her team took on Herring’s case and hundreds of others.

Wastelands does not shy away from the corrupt nature of the near-monopoly Smithfield (now owned by the massive Chinese company, WH Group), has on pork and the harm it perpetuates for every citizen in hog country. The book breaks down the history of Smithfield and the men who started it. But Addison also digs deeply into the contaminated soil of systemic and well-funded legislative advantage that Smithfield and the hog farmers have enjoyed in the halls of the state capital in Raleigh.

This excellent expose of the influence of CAFO owners in the legislature, juxtaposed to the real world of the plaintiffs, allows Addison to get to the the heart of this story, environmental justice. Addison lays bare the damaging implications of CAFOs that most often dominate the landscape of minority communities. A majority of the plaintiffs are Black community members who have occupied their land since their ancestors were allowed to own land. Addison underscores that the plaintiffs lack political voice. And he is perfectly willing to call out those elected government officials who oppose the nuisance claims and were therefore “fomenting an internecine war against minority rights.” These officials chose to be ignorant, Addison says, to the detriment of their minority constituents simply so they could continue to benefit from the hog industry.

“This land is not the province of the white farmers alone… Yet white claims to the soil have always been prioritized over Black claims. The law has never truly admitted the equality of those who are equal in the eyes of God. This must change.”

At the conclusion of the final trial, Addison triumphantly portrays the myriad of emotions the plaintiffs experience upon their victory in winning one of the largest punitive verdicts in state history — $473.5 million. The joy, relief, hope, and promise reach beyond monetary compensation into the beating heart of vindication — their voices are finally being heard after decades of dismissal. After months of being berated and threatened by their farming neighbors and pro-hog politicians, their complaints were finally justified and revealed to the world as real and unjust. While the defense lawyers continue to fight tooth and nail in appellate court, Smithfield has evidently lost enough money and taken enough hits in the court of public opinion to start making changes in its hog farming operations. Addison feels sure that this is the beginning of real change in the pork industry, especially in North Carolina, and a better life for those who live there.

 “Lives will be changed because of this. Futures will be rewritten.”


Maggie Dees co-leads the Rachel Carson Council Bird Watch and Wonder program and works with RCC President Bob Musil on special projects. Dees, an RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow, is a sophomore in the honors program at Virginia Tech University majoring in environmental science. She is from Salisbury and is passionate about environmental justice and conservation. The Rachel Carson Council voted this as its book of the month.

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