Tariffs, hog farms and Republicans

By: Thomas Mills - Contributing columnist

The hog industry has always had a contentious existence in North Carolina. It moved to the state in the early 1990s when regulations in Midwestern states sent the growers looking for new territory. North Carolina was ripe for picking. The tobacco industry was dying and eastern North Carolina had large swathes of rural real estate that needed use. Now, it’s being threatened by Trump’s trade policies.

On the positive side, the industry saved many communities in the rural North Carolina. The state became one of the largest producers of hogs in the nation and Smithfield opened the largest hog processing plant in the country in the little town of Tar Heel. More than 40,000 North Carolinians work in the industry and it adds more than $2.5 billion to the economy with an overall impact of almost $9 billion.

On the downside, the hog farms stink and create a lot waste. Disposing of that waste has been a subject of dispute since the industry first started its rapid expansion in the early 1990s. Waterways have been polluted by spills from lagoons and runoff from farms. Recently, the legislature has tried to protect hog farms from lawsuits but that hasn’t stopped them from proceeding.

The low-skilled jobs in the processing side have attracted large numbers of immigrants and controversy both over their residency and their treatment. Labor strife led to unionization of the Tar Heel plant. It’s been an industry that is hard to love.

Now, China is imposing tariffs on U.S. pork products in response to Donald Trump’s tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum. While China only makes up about 3 percent of the pork sold, the threat of a broader trade war, especially if Trump follows through on his pledge to pull out of NAFTA, could devastate the industry. Unemployment would skyrocket and farms would almost certainly close.

The hog industry is predominantly clustered in southeastern North Carolina in counties that went heavily for Trump. If farms start failing, the trade wars could put Republicans in a difficult position. In particular, Congressman David Rouzer (R-07) could find himself in trouble. He represents much of the territory where hog farms are a major economic force and he’s been steadfast in his support for Trump.

The hog industry has had a troubled history even if it’s been an economic success for eastern North Carolina. Still, few people want to see it go, especially in areas dependent on pork production for survival. Trump, though, could reduce the number of farms and workers dramatically if he causes a broader trade war and Republicans could pay a price in an area they’ve long assumed safe.

Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com, a website of commentary and analysis. Originally published at politicsnc.com.

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Thomas Mills

Contributing columnist