Kate Mara is set to executive produce a new documentary about Elsie Herring, a North Carolina environmental activist who fought against the region’s multibillion-dollar hog farming industry.
Mara, a Primetime Emmy-nominated actor known for her roles in House of Cards (2013–2016) and American Horror Story (2011), is joined by The Green Knight (2021) director David Lowery, who will also serve as an executive producer, and North Carolina filmmaker Jamie Berger, who wrote and produced the film.
The Smell of Money, due for release later this year, is directed by Californian filmmaker and conservationist Shawn Bannon, best known for his work on the documentary that accompanied The Green Knight movie and explored its mythical background in Arthurian legend.
Mara, a dedicated vegan, frequently advocates for animal welfare and environmental issues. She is a representative for the Humane Society of the US and even featured in one of the nonprofit’s “Meatless Monday” promotions back in 2015.
The trio’s new documentary will focus on Herring and her community’s fight against North Carolina’s hog farming industry, which began in the 1990s when farms began spraying their land with excess manure from the increasingly huge number of animals being “produced.”
‘The Smell of Money’ movie tackles environmental justice
Herring, who passed away last year, spent decades fighting against these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, that polluted her home county of Duplin. She later joined the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network as an organizer and helped to highlight the dangers of factory farming to rural communities nationwide, from pollution to racism.
Factory farms are a huge problem. Approximately 99 percent of all animals farmed in the US are living on factory farms, despite the various ethical, environmental, and other issues with this dominant form of animal agriculture. That’s something in excess of 1.5 billion animals.
One of the main problems with this is the disposal of waste, and factory farms produce well over 300 million tons of manure per year—more than three times the annual waste produced by humans. This is stored in huge lagoons and spread on crops, releasing toxic pollutants like hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and nitrogen, along with a powerful smell.
When describing the oppressive and all-pervasive stench of factory farming in the vicinity of her family home in Duplin, Herring told the House Committee On Energy & Commerce that “we can’t stay outside for very long because the odor is so offensive that we start gagging.”
Pork, pollution, and capitalism
The title of the new documentary comes from Wendell Murphy, a state legislator at the time, who notoriously referred to the inescapable smell of hog waste in the region as the “smell of money.”
Murphy is notably also the founder of Smithfield Foods, the single largest pork producer in the entire world, and the laws he helped pass as a state legislator are inarguably partially responsible for the unsustainable and destructive growth of the industry that continues today.
Hog farming emissions are directly related to 89 of the 98 animal agriculture-related air pollution deaths that take place in Duplin per year. As of 2019, the county has 2.3 million pigs for its 58,967 people—approximately 39 hogs for every single human. Farmers sprayed pig manure so close to Herring’s home that droplets would land on the front porch like rain.
Learn more about CAFOs and the pork industry from Compassion in World Farming here, and read on here to find out about Herring’s North Carolina Environmental Justice Network. Want to learn more about air pollution and animal agriculture? Learn more here.
Editor’s note: Since publication, LIVEKINDLY has corrected this article. First-time filmmaker Jamie Berger wrote and co-produced ‘the Smell of Money,’ and Elsie Herring did not co-found the NCEJN, she joined the extant group as an organizer.