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

At the North Carolina Pork Council annual awards. Joey Carter received the 2018 Pork Producer of the Year award

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 Fran Fleming and Emma Eubank, 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. 

As the two of us are not native to North Carolina, our oral history class with Dr. Gwynn Thayer introduced us to a new topic: industrial hog farming in eastern North Carolina. The issue is controversial, and throughout the semester we heard from a range of involved perspectives – global and local, scientific and political, personal and corporate. Many perspectives were in direct conflict, as hog farmers, workers, and community members tried to balance land use. Our class focused on how industrial hog farming affected the community of Duplin County, North Carolina. In 2018 and 2020, a handful of Duplin residents living near local hog farms sued Smithfield Farms, the largest hog farming corporation in the state. These residents claimed they could no longer use their property due to the pollution, unpleasant smells and noise that the hog farms created. A few of these residents affected by the local hog farms claimed that the issue was rooted in environmental racism, which refers to  any set of policies or practices that disadvantages a group based on their race. Many neighbors to the Duplin County hog farms are Black, and feel that the effects they suffer from the nearby hog farms are exacerbated by race. The two previous blogs in this series address this issue more directly. 

The sources we engaged with during the semester included documentaries, articles, websites of various organizations, books, and direct interviews with people involved in the issue. Many sources agreed with this perspective, pointing out that pollution accompanies large-scale hog farming operations, while others deemphasized these problems and advocated for more protection for farmers. Most sources we read seemed to agree on the smell that covers Duplin County like a fog, especially in warmer months. When it came time to partner with willing community members to conduct oral histories, we were fortunate to connect with a prominent family in the Duplin County hog industry. Joey and Matthew Carter’s perspectives on their work, community relationships, and future in the agricultural business added a new dimension to our understanding of the hog issue.

Joey Carter, Tina Carter, Matthew Carter, undated

Emma was the first to drive out to Duplin County to interview a young farmer named Matthew Carter. Here’s what she learned:

As I drove the hour and a half on I-40E towards Duplin County, I passed several billboard signs branded with Smithfield pork. I was heading to speak with a  Smithfield contracting farmer, and the rampant advertising as I drove closer to Duplin served as a reminder of the area’s connection. The larger-than-life images of packaged meat looked down on my car as I arrived in the town of Beulaville, North Carolina.

When I arrived at the town fire station, just off the main road through town, I was greeted by the barking of a fireman’s dog and the chatter of farmer Joey Carter in a virtual meeting. Matthew Carter, Joey’s son, was dressed in a ball cap and jeans and ushered me into a side room to get away from the noise. He had quips about knowing his way around recording equipment, referencing his involvement in the court case between plaintiffs Elvis and Vonnie Williams (who are local residents) and one of the Carter’s hog farms. After explaining to him his rights as the interviewee, we began our hour-long conversation.

We began by discussing the tradition of farming the Carters hold dear. Matthew’s grandfather was the first to purchase land in the area, and what started as a hobby grew to a serious endeavor. The Carters began farming in the 1980s, when the state of North Carolina invested in agriculturalists through supporting small hog farmers. Matthew looks back fondly on his time growing up on his father’s hog farm, then affiliated with Murphy Family Farms. After a series of corporate buyouts, the reigning company became Smithfield Foods, a Chinese-owned corporation which is the largest producer of pork in the United States. Smithfield recruited Matthew out of college in 2007 to become one of their many contract hog farmers.

Some critics of the hog industry are wary of the larger Smithfield corporation and its Chinese owners. However, Matthew doesn’t hold any concerns about international involvement in his work. In the aftermath of the Smithfield buyout, Matthew raises his hogs “the same way that [he’s] grown them for the last several decades.” And without Smithfield providing the essentials to make the farming process affordable, Matthew “wouldn’t be able to have the opportunity to continue to raise hogs” at all.

But Matthew was interested in more than just farming for Smithfield. He simultaneously worked for Duplin County Soil and Water, learning conservation techniques that can be applied to farmland. He then began working as an agronomist for Synagro, a national company that researches and handles biosolids and their relationship with local soil. Matthew proudly described his work as “connecting the farmer and the municipality,” providing agriculturalists with assistance in handling their produced biosolids according to local regulations. Matthew is able to apply these conservationist ideas to the 25 hog houses he oversees in North Carolina.

When we reached the topic of the Smithfield court cases, Matthew had the same opinion as he did during the controversy: that hog farms do not interfere with one’s ability to use and enjoy their property, regardless of proximity. He defended his position using both his background in agricultural conservation and his personal experience living near hog farming facilities. He maintained that he holds no ill will towards those involved in the lawsuit, and that his farm is always open for neighbors and community members to visit and learn about his methods, from rearing to responsible waste disposal. “We have to be able to coexist,” Matthew asserted. “There’s room for all of us.”

My talk with Matthew Carter ended on his hopes for renewed trust among his community. On the drive back to Raleigh, the Smithfield billboards still loomed overhead, a reminder of the court cases which placed the Carters in the national spotlight, and of Duplin County’s permanent ties to meat exportation.

Later in the month, Fran made the same trek to speak to Matthew’s father, Joey Carter. Here’s what she learned:  

J. D. Carter, Matthew Carter, and Joey Carter at a hog BBQ in the early 2000s

My interview with Joey Carter, a Duplin County hog farmer, firefighter, and right-to-farm activist, lent a very human perspective to the hog farming issue. Joey’s involvement in the North Carolina hog farming story was especially high-profile, since he served as the star witness in the recent Smithfield hog trials. A personable man with generous and gracious manners, Joey invited me to conduct the interview at his farm, which stands empty after the lawsuit. I arrived on a cloudy day and found the farm quiet and still. Clad in a baseball hat and jeans, Joey greeted me outside his workshed, and ushered me inside for the interview. After offering me a drink from the small refrigerator he keeps inside, stocked with water and coke, we sat down and began the interview. 

Joey’s experience as star witness for Smithfield Farms was immediately evident. He spoke about himself easily, and quickly offered up a summary of his life story. In our conversation, it became clear how for Joey, farming was not only a job, but a lifestyle choice intimately entwined with his character and family life. A hard worker, he rises early every morning and prefers to have multiple jobs. For him, hog farming was “…. the American dream, you know, we were living and then you know we growed hogs.” When his farm grew to include several hog houses, it became too large for him to manage alone while maintaining his law enforcement job and contractor work building hog houses for others. At that point, Joey got a “helper to help me with the hogs because I had got too much then with my hogs, my contract, and I’m also with the fire department.” For Joey, the flexibility of farming was an important part of his lifestyle and demonstrated his strong work ethic. 

Though these statements aligned with what I’d heard in the Hog Farmer documentary that focuses on Joey, speaking in person and hearing him express them so freely gave them a ring of truth. Some questions we covered later complicated the narrative that we’d heard in class that suggested farmers sprayed indiscriminately and valued farming primarily for profit. In our conversation, Joey described details of his character and background that complicated this narrative while making clear why he had become a star witness for Smithfield farms. 

Firstly, he described his ongoing relationship with his neighbors, especially in the context of his work as a volunteer firefighter. He also described technologies and methods that went beyond legal requirements to help mitigate the amount that spraying would affect his neighbors. Joey reports that he was “always conscious…. is the wind coming out of north or south or east or west because… you got houses on the north side of the farm.” Beyond the choices he made in an attempt to be a decent neighbor, Joey also emphasized his knowledge of rules and regulations related to hog farming. Though he no longer farms hogs himself, he still contracts to build hog houses for other farmers and takes classes yearly to remain up-to-date with legal requirements for the structures. He believes that his former career as a police officer also gave him an enhanced understanding of the legal system. Overall, he felt that his adherence to the system as a “model hog farmer”, commitment to doing “things by the rules,” and close understanding of the legal system made him uniquely qualified to contribute to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit ended with the courts ruling Joey’s farm a nuisance and Smithfield choosing to settle with his neighbors out of court. Smithfield also opted not to renew Joey’s contract to farm hogs, effectively ending his career as a hog farmer. Instead, he continues to advocate for farmer’s rights in North Carolina, and he hopes to repurpose his now empty land for a new type of farming. It’s clear why he doesn’t want to give up farming entirely. Joey not only views farming as a central part of his life, but also as an essential service to the world. Later in our conversation, he emphasized If people want to keep eating meat, animals will need to be farmed somewhere. Lagoon and sprayfield systems may have negative health effects, but they are one of the most efficient methods of farming meat. For farmers like Joey and his son Matthew, this method of farming is simply the most recent innovation in the tradition of farming their families have handed down for generations.

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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