Ending factory farming. Ending animal cruelty.
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News Icon 4/15/2024

Images: Molly Condit / CIWFI / We Animals Media

In eastern North Carolina, a decades’ long battle between giant agribusinesses and local residents has impacted every part of rural life. The expansion of intensive pig farming has transformed the region and left a trail of environmental degradation and human suffering in its wake. Jessie Jarmon’s story is typical in the struggle between a community maintaining a healthy rural way of life amidst the encroachment of industrial animal agriculture.

Jessie Jarmon sits in a chair in his home.
After retiring from 20 years of military service in the early 1990s, Jessie Jarmon returned to his family home and property in Duplin County, North Carolina, to discover a massive increase in pig farming in the area. Jessie suffers from glaucoma and says the airborne bacteria from the pig farms causes tremendous discomfort in his eye.

How Intensive Pig Farming Impacts Rural North Carolina

Intensive pig farming took hold in eastern North Carolina during the 1980s, driven by the allure of cheap land, labor, and a lack of regulations. Today, epicenters of industrial pig production like Duplin and Sampson counties boast some of the highest concentrations of pig farms in the United States. Massive Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) operated by corporate giants such as Smithfield Foods, confine tens of thousands of animals within long barns, devoid of access to the outdoors. The animals’ waste falls through slats in the barn floors and is collected in large, open pits or lagoons, where it is then disposed of by spraying onto nearby fields.

According to data from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, pig farms in North Carolina produce an estimated 10 billion gallons of liquid waste each year. Bacteria and chemicals associated with farm waste have been found in large quantities in North Carolina’s waterways as well as inside nearby residents’ homes and drinking water.

Rural, low-income communities with predominantly African American and Native American populations are disproportionately affected by the negative impacts of intensive pig farming, such as increased exposure to contaminated water, air pollution, and higher rates of respiratory illnesses. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Public Health found that residents living near pig farms in North Carolina had higher rates of respiratory problems, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), compared to those living further away. The study found that exposure to airborne particulate matter from pig farm waste was likely a contributing factor.

Jessie Jorman stands outside in front of a cattle farm.
Jessie Jarmon stands in front of an electrified fence separating his family's property from the industrial pig farm less than a kilometer from his house. Some regulations require that industrial pig farms raise a minimum number of cows to graze the surrounding fields that serve as outlets for routine spraying of drained waste water from the farm's manure lagoon.

Jessie’s story

Jessie Jarmon, born in 1955, resides with his three brothers on a family farm steeped in generational heritage. A veteran of the military’s airborne division turned cardiovascular technician, Jessie's return to civilian life was marked by a stark transformation in his surroundings. What once was a pastoral retreat soon became enveloped by the stench and shadow of industrial swine production, with an estimated twenty CAFOs within a mile radius of his home.

“When I left, there were maybe five, ten hogs in our backyard. When I got back from the military, there was 5 to 10,000 hogs in our backyard.”

The negative environmental and health consequences of intensive pig farming have impacted Jessie's daily existence. After discovering his well water had been contaminated by hog farm waste, Jessie began paying for city water. When Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) offered free testing of the city water coming into his home, he discovered that this water also had high amounts of bacteria associated with farm waste. Since then, Jessie has been drinking bottled water and using his home’s water only for cooking and bathing.

Jessie Jarmon stands next to a kitchen sink in his home.
Jessie Jarmon stands next to a kitchen sink in his Duplin County, North Carolina home. After retiring from 20 years of military service, Jessie returned to his family home to discover that his property's water, which comes from a well, had been contaminated by pig farm waste. After this, Jessie began paying for city water. Tests offered by REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help) revealed that this city water also had high amounts of bacteria associated with farm waste.

Jessie noticed the strong odors from the pig farms when he first came home from his military stint, but has since stopped noticing the smell, which is a constant presence. Jessie, who suffers from glaucoma, says the airborne bacteria from the pig farms cause tremendous discomfort for his eye. His doctor prescribes him eye drops which he uses several times a day. Jessie says he knows the bacteria has cancerous properties and for that reason he never misses a doctor's appointment.

Jessie knows many people in the area who have died suddenly from aggressive cancers. He attends REACH meetings to keep himself up-to-date on the research, testing, and public safety advice. But he says these meetings are sparsely attended. He says some neighbors have been paid “$50,000 to keep their mouth shut.”

Jessie’s rural way of life is coming to an end. His children don’t want to live on the farm, which his grandparents bought in the 1940s, amongst the odor from the CAFOs.

Jessie says he gets asked all the time “why don’t you leave?” His response is that people can’t afford to leave.

Jessie Jarmon drives past an industrial pig farm.
Jessie Jarmon drives on his family's property, as an industrial pig farm less than a kilometer from his house looms in the background. When he retired from 20 years of military service in the early 1990s, Jessie returned to find a massive increase in pig farming in the area. "When I left, there were maybe five, ten hogs in our backyard. When I got back from the military, there was five to 10,000 hogs in our backyard."

He’s not trying to abolish the pig farms either. Jessie, as well as countless rural residents across the country who are embroiled in a struggle for survival with the expansion of factory farming are simply fighting to reclaim their air, water and dignity.

“They try to twist that people in this county is trying to get rid of the hog farms. And that's not the case. We're trying to get rid of the scent and clean up the air and stuff like that. If it takes them getting outta here, then so be it.”

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