Farm Family Hits Rough Waters with Activist Groups
Family: An Anchor during rough waters
There are bad things in life that happen to good people, and it is completely unfair. Yet out of the depths of bad and unfairness, strength and grace arise to the surface.
Over the past few weeks, I have had the privilege of getting to know the Taylor family. After several e-mails, they invited me to come to their home and talk with them about their story. It was the youngest Taylor's first birthday, and it was a privilege to be able to take a peek into this special family's life.
Donnie and Annie Taylor live in Pink Hill, North Carolina. Married in June of 1968, the couple began their life on the family farm. Donnie graduated from North Carolina State University Agriculture Institute (Go Wolfpack!!).
They had three children-- Johnnie, Sheila, and Jason-- who are now married and have children of their own. Johnnie, and his wife Tara, have a 5-year old daughter named Halle. Sheila married Preston Sutton, and they have a 9-year old son, Chase and a daughter, Kinsleigh, who is 6. Jason and his wife, Angie, have two daughters, Ivy who is 9, and 6-year old Brooke . They also have a son named Kevin who just turned 1. Johnnie and Jason both work on the family farm with their dad, Donnie, and Sheila works in oncology clinical trials. The whole family spends a lot of time together. They all go to the same church, cook out together, and are big fans of Jenga. They constantly work together as a team, whether they are working on the farm, or tag-teaming to get all the cousins to their many activities. It doesn't take long to see the bond they share between each other, poking fun at each other, and even finishing one another's sentences. If they don't sound great enough already (I mean, NC State alumni, food lovers, and super nice...you can't go wrong), they are also a farm family.
Donnie and Annie have been farming for 47 years. Throughout that time, they have worked hard to create a farm for their family's future. They started off with row crops, and in the 90's, they built three hog finishing houses, later adding 8 chicken houses in the 2000’s. Their oldest son Johnnie manages this farm. In 2010, they made the decision to expand their farm by purchasing a hog farm about 25 miles away that included 14 finishing houses, 6 nursery houses, and over 200 acres. Apart from being a good deal, they chose to buy this farm in an effort to provide the opportunity for their youngest son Jason to come back home to farm. Even though the farm needed cleaning up, they were excited for this chance. Donnie could wind down and retire, while his two sons took over their respective farms.
I wish with all my heart I could stop their story there. I wish I could tell you they did a "farm flip" that everyone loved. I wish I could say they are looking forward to many more great years of farming. I wish I could, but I can't. You see, behind this smiling family that loves Jenga and cookouts, is something devastating and heartbreaking. I suppose every good story has a villain or some sort of tragedy that must be conquered, and I suppose this is one of those stories.
Just 29 days after closing on the farm in 2010 and a few days before Christmas, Mrs. Annie received a phone call. It was a reporter asking what her response was about the intent to sue she had from the Waterkeeper Alliance, Neuse River Keepers, and North Carolina Environmental Justice Network . In this way, the Taylors discovered that environmental activist groups had filed an intent to sue against the farm the Taylors had just purchased less than a month before.
Being told you are being sued is something I can only imagine. When I think lawsuit, I think of the lady who burned herself on the McDonald's coffee-- not this, and yet here it is. The Taylors were sued for violating the Clean Water Act because of accusations of being irresponsible with the hog waste from the farm.
*For those who do not know, most hog farms house their pigs in large barns. The floors of the barns have small slats in them so the pig poop can fall through and be flushed into a pit called a lagoon. These lagoons are lined and have to meet special regulations. Part of those regulations are to keep them at certain levels. This is done through pumping. Special machinery pumps the hog waste, a.k.a. fertilizer, onto crops. This also involves regulations. No pumping is allowed if it has just rained as this will cause run-off into ditches and waterways. While it may sound super gross to have a "poop pond" it provides crucial fertilizer for plants.
If you remember, this suit happened within 29 days of buying the farm. The Taylors had to do a lot wrong in such a short amount of time, but the thing was, they hadn't. They had not even pumped yet when the lawsuit was announced. They knew the farm needed some work, but they were willing to do that themselves. They decided to sit down with the groups who had filed the intent to sue and find out 1) what they had done and 2)what the groups wanted them to do. At the mediation, they were told to get a lawyer. The groups stated they had enough evidence to bring them to court that day.
The Taylors were taken aback, but still shared with the environmental groups the 5-year plan they had set up that showed how they planned to fix the farm; however, it didn't matter. The lawsuit persisted.
Fast forward to today... 5 years later. Since the day they found out about the lawsuit, it has seemed that the family has been in a constant state of rough waters, but they have continued to plow through their daily life (no pun intended).
They have cleaned up the farm by mowing around the hog houses, hired someone to haul 5 tractor trailer loads of trash from an open dump that the previous owners left, and repaired parts of the farm that had become run down. Many have noticed the improvements on the farm to the point that neighboring farms have gotten the family to include their land (a total of 500 additional acres) in their waste management plan (a plan that maps out where they will apply the hog waste). Neighbors have told them what a good job they are doing.
"Everyone wants cheap food, and I think we do a really outstanding job of that here," said Mr. Donnie.
I visited the farm and was impressed myself with how pretty it was. The farm is down a dead end road. If you can imagine over 200 acres surrounded by trees, planted with tall corn, hog barns on a hill, and a dirt path to reach it all, it sounds pretty picturesque.
Apart from making the farm pretty, they have also had many officials test their facilities to make sure there was not any environmental damage occurring. The farm has been inspected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Division of Water Quality (DWQ), and Carl Dunn, a state engineer; all have found the farm to be in great working order, with no violations occurring. The Waterkeeper Alliance was even allowed on the farm by a judge on four separate occasions to take soil, water, and lagoon samples. They were even allowed to enter the hog barns. I'd like to stop here, and express how upsetting this is. Farms are an extension of a person's home. They are where they work day in and day out. It is where memories and lessons are learned. Can you imagine people coming onto your property (after accusing you of something), taking "evidence" and then actually going into your house when the supposed "crime" happened outside? It is tough. Compound that with the fact that the hog industry is facing a lot of disease right now, and introducing people is a bio-security hazard that may spread even more disease. I, for one, would be turning 50 shades of red, having to watch it occur. Not only that, but the activist groups fly over the farm multiple times a week, often flying very low. They also go up to the gate of the farm to take pictures. A family lives at the gate entrance of the farm (they also work on the farm), and they have to endure the constant cameras and planes at their home, and there is nothing that the families can do about it.
"You think you have a lot of rights. You think you can keep them off your property. You cannot," said Mr. Donnie.
I should note here that despite being on the farm 4 separate times and being inspected more times than that, there has yet to be any evidence that shows the Taylors have violated any regulations. This is perhaps the most frustrating part of it all. While the activist groups are searching for evidence against the Taylors, the family is having to pay 5 year's worth of legal fees plus deal with the emotional stress of it all. As Jason put it, "We are guilty until proven innocent." To show just how much the activist groups are searching for any kind of evidence, the Environmental Justice League backed out of the lawsuit because they felt there was a lack of evidence.
The Waterkeeper Alliance won't tell the family what they want. They won't say what they want changed.
"They've given us nothing that they really want. There is no way to fix it. You're just in limbo," said Mrs. Annie.
Mr. Donnie added, "They won't give you an answer back. They won't meet with you or talk to you."
It is terribly frustrating to want to mediate and want to put it behind them, but are not allowed to. The Taylors would love to mediate and fix anything that is wrong, but they first have to be presented with that.
"The thing that bothers me most, is where are the facts? Give me the facts. Show me that I'm ruining the environment. You know?" said Johnnie.
More than this, if there was something wrong that was causing environmental damage, would it not make sense to go ahead and fix it rather than drag a lawsuit out for years? The Waterkeeper Alliance had been watching and investigating this farm 3 years prior to the Taylors buying it. For a total of 8 years, these so-called environmentalists have been making plenty of accusations but doing nothing to make a difference. Would it not make more sense to work with farmers, rather than tear them down? I understand that there should be consequences for violators, but I also think a helping hand goes a lot farther than a slap in the face. It makes it worse that the Taylors haven't done anything--insult to injury. In my opinion, the real environmentalists are the Taylors. They are the ones who have fixed anything wrong with the farm with their hard-earned money. They invited people to inspect them. They have a passion for the environment. When I was visiting with them, they showed me countless photos of bear, turkeys, and deer on their farm. They are avid fishermen, hunters, and outdoorsmen.
The lawsuit is not the only thing (I know give these folks a break for Pete's sake!). Hurricane Irene blew through 10 months after buying the farm. This took some of the barn roofs with it. It, along with all the other wet summers did nothing for the efforts in keeping the lagoons at a low level. There were times where they had to hire honey wagons (trucks that haul the waste away) to keep the levels low. This cost over $100,000. In addition, Mr. Donnie has had to have a pacemaker. The stress has not helped his health.
The last five years have been extraordinarily hard.
"We are just small, simple-minded people that have worked all of our life to try to have something. You know, right or wrong, that's all we've done. We've worked hard for it. No one has given it to us, and for them to come along and if they would just say 'hey this is what we want you to do, we would have done it," Mrs. Annie said through tears.
They live with it every day, working harder than ever, even though they still may lose the farm.
"You still have to go to work. You still have to do everything you always did, knowing, that hey, you worked all your life for this to try and support your family and help everyone along and now it comes to this," Mr. Donnie said.
More than costing them sleep, it has also cost them major bucks. Legal fees have cost them over $600,000 on top of the costs it took for them to repair the farm. The family has now had to file bankruptcy, and the lawsuit continues. They aren't sure if they will have a home next year and may even lose the entire farm. This weight is evident:
"We filed bankruptcy. We still can't get away from it. We still might have to fight this case, and it is going to take everything we got. We've been married 47 years, and it is going to take everything we got, and it's just not right. I feel like I have pulled a 5 year sentence...for nothing. I feel like I've been in prison, and every day I get up I feel like I am bound. I can't get released from it. It's just not fair, and I know life isn't supposed to be fair all the time, you know?" said Mrs. Annie.
They have recently started a Go Fund Me account to help them cover the legal costs. If you would be gracious enough, I know they would love any help you could give them. You can go here to donate:
In addition to donating, you can also become aware and spread this story. Unfortunately, the Taylors are not the first to endure such troubles with the activist groups.
The Taylors are a family, much like yours or mine. Mrs. Annie loves being a Nana to all of the grandkids.
"We do all we can for as long as we can. It doesn't cost much to get together as a family, so that is what we do. We will be fine. We have three kids we can rotate living between if we have to," joked Mrs. Annie.
This storm will pass, but in the meantime, family is what anchors them during these rough waters.