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 overpowering, but it’s there.
Aside from a few dirt-speckled pickup trucks, this battleground — ground zero in what some see as a 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 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. But 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 an area newspaper 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 are corporate mega-farms.
“In Missouri, there is no limit to the amount a plaintiff can recover for an alleged nuisance, no matter how slight,” Smithfield said in a statement.
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 Homan farm. Of the 15 plaintiffs, 13 received $100,000 apiece in a 1999 lawsuit against the same property.