Exploring the Impact of the Hog Industry in North Carolina through Oral History (Part II of III)

Miracle Johnson working with community members and Duke University students in REACH office in Duplin County, May 2023

Note from Dr. Gwynn Thayer, Associate Head and Chief Curator of Special Collections, and the Spring 2023 HI 533: Theory and Practice of Oral History course instructor: This blog was authored by Miracle Johnson and DeLayne Jolly, two graduate students in public history, and expresses their personal experiences and perspectives in this graduate history course. The oral history interviews that they reference will be processed and added to MC 740, Graduate Student Oral Histories on North Carolina Hog Farming, within the next several months. Eleven interviews were conducted in total, and captured diverse voices from the community, including the perspectives of hog farmers as well as activists and community members. 

On Wednesday, April 12th, the two of us (Miracle Johnson and DeLayne Jolly) accompanied Dr. Thayer on a trip to a community meeting of the organization REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help) in Duplin County, North Carolina. Neither of us had spent time in this area before, and none of us (including Dr. Thayer) knew what to expect from the meeting. 

REACH office in Duplin County, May 2023

What we did know was that we were visiting an area of the state we had read extensively about in HI 533: Oral History since the spring semester began, a region which has for decades now been affected by the growth of CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) hog farming. In particular, the industry methods for disposing of hog waste have prompted community concerns about pollution and environmental racism. The relationships and interactions between the integrators (the large companies who facilitate hogs and set the terms of CAFOs), farmers, and community members is too complicated to concisely describe here, but attending this meeting was a part of the broader mission of our class to record oral histories from affected people in the area in order both grow our own skills as historians and gain a better understanding of the situation. 

Driving into Duplin County, we were struck by the sheer number of farms we could count on either side of the road. It was immediately obvious why the stakes are so high to those in the community; it’s hard to imagine even at a glance that there could be many people here not economically invested in hog farming or living near a farm. 

The meeting itself was located in a small building with a gravel parking lot, the REACH sign with the outstretched hands of its logo planted proudly by the road. We were warmly greeted, pointed to the room where we would be meeting, and asked to sign in. The sign-in book was sitting on a table just inside the meeting room, in front of a framed photograph of a man I recognized as Dr. Steve Wing, a UNC-Chapel Hill based epidemiologist who worked extensively studying the health effects of hog waste pollution in the community before his death in 2016. The walls of the meeting room were covered with research posters and maps of Duplin County.

Poster on CAFOs in REACH office in Duplin County, May 2023

The meeting itself was called to order by Mr. Devon Hall, Co-Founder and Executive Director of REACH, who insisted that everyone present, even those joining on Zoom, introduce themselves before we began. We went around the room sharing our names and where we were from, and when we had finished Mr. Hall explained that having us introduce ourselves reinforced REACH’s mission of making everyone’s voice heard. The meeting itself consisted of some updates and announcements from community members. A focus on intergenerational work and community growth seemed to naturally emerge. One woman shared a volunteer opportunity at the hospital for high schoolers, a man shared a job opportunity ($15 an hour) for teens at a community garden, and a REACH employee gave an update on the youth leadership program which encouraged young people to pursue a STEM education. After that, a group there from Duke University spoke and split us into groups to perform a survey for a project to improve ways of giving community feedback in stakeholder meetings. 

The meeting wound down with a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday for Mr. Hall, led by Reverend Angela Matthews. Before we were dismissed (with a hearty helping of delicious food and cake), everyone in the room circled up to join hands and say out loud; “I am a link in the chain, and the chain will not break with me.” 

The passion and devotion of the community members in attendance at the REACH meeting was clear, and the actions and words of those who spoke supported the guiding ethos of the organization. The momentum of their projects was surprising, and the intergenerational focus encouraging for the future of REACH. I’m grateful to the organization and community for opening their doors to us, and letting us be inspired by the solidarity on display there. 

A week later, Miracle met up with Rev. Angela Matthews, who serves on the Board of Directors at REACH, to conduct an oral history. Here’s what she learned. 

Photos of Board members in REACH office in Duplin County, May 2023

When I traveled back to Warsaw, I met up with Ms. Angela in her classroom where she teaches at an elementary school. I was very nervous about how the interview would go, as this was the first one I had ever conducted outside of the practice we had in class. However, the interview was a very rewarding experience. Ms. Angela had many things to say about her feelings toward hog farming, and other types, such as chicken and turkey farming. She also discussed her childhood and its connection to food production. Originally from Kenansville, she moved to Warsaw later and has resided there for over thirty years. During that time, she was able to see when hog farms first came into the area, and the effects that it has had on the community.

One of the most interesting things to come out of the interview, at least from my perspective, was that Ms. Angela did not think of the hog farming crisis as solely an issue of race. For her, it was also about class. Those who had the means to change legislation, and make a difference in where these hog farms were put up, decided to put them in rural areas and away from their more elaborate homes. Toward the end of the interview, she said, “What do you think? You think that some of those legislators would like to live in that community [Duplin County]? Taking their Cadillacs through there and that water [hog waste water] hitting their Cadillacs?” In her interview, Ms. Angela expressed that she understood how important Duplin County is to the nation because of its high production of meat and other products. However, she also understood that this production impacted Duplin County residents themselves, especially health-wise. She noted that she and others she knows have asthma, and being that she works at an elementary school, she has seen children suffer from it as well. 

As a board member of REACH, Ms. Angela’s passion for the organization came through as she spoke. One of the main initiatives for REACH is to teach the community to become more self-reliant when it comes to providing food. In conjunction with this is their encouragement of the youth in the area to learn self-sustenance in their lives, and to be able to continue these efforts in the future. Ms. Angela’s appreciation for self-production of food nutrition came from her childhood experiences. She grew up with family members and community members who grew their own food. With only one grocery store in her town at the time, families had to rely on themselves and their community for most of their food. Ms. Angela states that her uncle had a farm that grew potatoes, butterbeans, cucumbers, cantaloupes, collard greens, and others, in addition to hogs and chickens, and she would help harvest the food. It’s clear in the way that Ms. Angela speaks about this time in her life that she remembers it with fondness, and wants her community to be able to sustain itself economically and socially. 

Ms. Angela’s statement towards the end of her interview has stuck with me since she said it: “I just hope and pray that we come to an understanding that will benefit all people in every neighborhood.” The people of REACH, like Devon Hall, Rev. Angela Matthews, and others who are not mentioned in this post but are nonetheless important, do their best in trying to achieve this goal, and even if they can’t, pass the torch to the younger generations to continue their work. 

The Special Collections research center has recently added environmental justice as a new collecting area and is starting to seek out new collections in this area. If you have any questions or are interested in viewing Special Collections materials, please contact us at library_specialcollections@ncsu.edu or submit a request online. The Special Collections Research Center is open by appointment only. Appointments are available Monday–Friday, 9am–6pm and Saturday, 1pm–5pm. Requests for a Saturday appointment must be received no later than Tuesday of the same week.


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