CoastLine Series: Pork & Poultry Industry in Southeastern North Carolina

Aug 15, 2016

  North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the United States.  Hog farming in the state is largely concentrated in the southeastern region – which includes Duplin, Wayne, and Pender counties and part of Sampson County.  According to the 2012 U.S. Agriculture Census, North Carolina sold nearly $3 billion in pork products that year; of that, Duplin County was responsible for north of $600 million and Sampson County came in second in pork sales with more than $500 million.   

Looking beyond sales to the industry as a whole, the North Carolina Pork Council puts the economic impact at $11 billion.  But it’s a complicated industry.  And it’s currently the focus of a complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency against the state agency that regulates hog farming -- what is now North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. 

In this special series on hog and poultry CAFOs, we explore the environmental, human health, animal welfare, and water quality concerns around this key component of North Carolina's economic engine.

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Read the transcript of the sample audio below:

North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the United States.  Hog farming in the state is largely concentrated in the southeastern region – which includes Duplin, Wayne, and Pender counties and part of Sampson County.  According to the 2012 U.S. Agriculture Census, North Carolina sold nearly $3 billion in pork products that year; of that, Duplin County was responsible for north of $600 million and Sampson County came in second in pork sales with more than $500 million.   Looking beyond sales to the industry as a whole, the North Carolina Pork Council puts the economic impact at $11 billion.  

But it’s a complicated industry.  And it’s currently the focus of a complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency against the state agency that regulates hog farming -- what is now North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. 

Rachel Lewis Hilburn: How many hog farms are there in the state?

Ed Emory: Right now, Rachel, we have 2,100 farms that are permitted to grow hogs in North Carolina.

RLH: If you take a snapshot of the last 50 years, the hog farming industry has changed significantly. Can you talk about how it’s changed over the last several decades?

Ed Emory: The major growth was in the 1980s to the mid-1990s. And in 1997, the state of North Carolina had a moratorium on the construction of new farms. So no new farms have been permitted or expanded in North Carolina since 1997. There is a lagoon and spray field system that the waste water from the house is pumped into a lagoon. Now, this lagoon is scientifically-engineered. It’s lined with clay. There are anaerobic processes that go on in a lagoon that treat the waste.

RLH: And what does that mean?

Ed Emory: That means that these processes go on and it actually eats some of the waste up. So what is applied to the land is a weak solution. But every farmer in North Carolina that has a hog farm has to—six times a year—sample what they are pumping out of their lagoon onto their own land, send it to a state lab to have it analyzed, so that they can be assured that what they are spraying does not go over the limit that they are allowed based on the agronomic rates.

RLH: So where then are these groups, like Waterkeeper Alliance, how are they coming up with these claims that there is— What is this, Elizabeth, fecal matter in the water? Is that what the claim is?

Elizabeth Haddix: Yeah, the 2015 study analyzed nutrient pollution in 54 sub-watersheds across North Carolina and found significant water quality impacts where CAFOs were present. CAFOs are the closed animal feeding operations; that’s an abbreviation. These studies go all the way back to the mid-1990s, and there’s several each year that document the pollution, the water pollution, the air pollution as well. There’s hydrogen sulfide gases. There’s ammonia gases. We trace it to what Ed referred to as the lagoon and spray field system. So that animal waste goes directly into open pits. Ed said they were lined by clay. They’re unlined pits. They’re dug in our good eastern North Carolina soil.

Ed Emory: It’s a clay lining that has to be so many inches thick, that is compacted, that’s impervious so the water does not leak out. That’s the fact.

Elizabeth Haddix: Even if the rules are being followed, though, just remember, we’re talking about nearly ten million hogs in 2,100 farms.

We used to have between 15,000-20,000 farmers that raised hogs before the industrialization of this production, and now there’s only 2100. So when you think about traditional family farms that we know of, that we think of, this is a very, very different practice.

Mike Mallin: In a nutshell, what we find is that, in areas like the northeast Cape Fear River basin, especially Duplin County, the soils there are typically very porous, meaning that the water—rainwater and spray water—trickles down rapidly. Also, the water table is high. So when you have a combination of high water table and porous soils, when you add a pollutant in a liquid form, it’s going to very rapidly reach the water table and go move into the nearest stream. That’s exactly what we have found is occurring in Duplin County.

RLH: I noticed that in some of your earlier papers that you published, the papers in the 1990s, you start out with some pretty catastrophic rain events, large rain events like big storms and hurricanes. Are you saying that this happens not only during large rain events but just as a matter of course in a normal season of weather?

Mike Mallin: That’s correct. Like I said earlier, the lagoon failures earlier on were generally connected with very, very heavy periods of rainfall and hurricanes as well. But when you sample on a day-to-day basis— We did sampling in 2013, in fact, and we found excessive levels of ammonia, of nitrate, and fecal coliform bacteria in the streams that are adjoining these swine spray fields.

Kraig Westerbeek: Well, all of agriculture relies on nutrient applications to promote crop growth, so if you take issue with the soils in Duplin County with regards to their porosity or high water table, they’re fertilized by commercial fertilizer the same way they’re fertilized by swine manure effluent, as we’ve discussed. The difference is that a swine farm is regulated with regards to the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium they can apply. And it’s very regulated dependent upon the crop being grown and the yield being grown. The rate at which it’s applied is called an agronomic rate.

Ed Emory: I would contend that we are having less of an environmental impact now with the hogs that we’re growing, even though we’re growing a greater number, because we can control it. I remember when pigs were grown in the swamp. And I think those three million probably were causing more damage to our environment than the way we have it now.

Our farmers and our industry is continually looking and investing in new technology, in making this operate better, just in the use of water alone. We have cut the amount of water per pig that we use as far as waste water treatment in half over the past ten years.

Don Butler: The diets of animals have changed, the genetics of animals have changed, and the fact of the matter is that today, compared to twenty years ago, there’s about half as many nutrients in the waste stream as there was two decades ago. So that is a huge change.

RLH: Haddix, a complaint filed with the EPA about a year and a half ago alleges that the hog industry disproportionately impacts minority communities, violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. How did the complainant arrive at these allegations? Why do you say this is an issue of environmental justice?

Elizabeth Haddix: The complainants are the Waterkeeper Alliance, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and REACH, which stands for Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, which is based in Warsaw, and those organizations had been working for quite literally decades to try to get the state regulatory agency—then called DENR, just recently changed its name to the Department of Environmental Quality or DEQ—first, to do a disproportionality analysis, to look at how its general permitting of these industrial hog facilities disproportionately impacted communities that are protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act—in other words, disproportionately impacted communities based on their race and ethnicity. So African Americans, Native Americans, and Latino residents of North Carolina are about twice as likely to live within three miles of one of these polluting facilities as white North Carolinians are. So, they had been trying to get DEQ to do that analysis and to modify its permit so that the impacts of these facilities would be less burdensome for the people who live near them.

RLH: These are farms that have been in place for many, many years, and I doubt that anyone would say that they were deliberately located in order to impact communities of color. I mean, it wasn’t intentional.

Elizabeth Haddix: Under Title VI, there doesn’t need to be discriminatory intent. You know, the effects are the effects, and they’re discriminatory, so the people who live there experience the injury just as if they were being intentionally discriminated against.

There’s lots of ways short of ending the lagoon and spray field system all together, which ultimately, as Mike Williams from NC State has indicated, will have to happen. It’s just an unsustainable system, you know, with the geology and hydro-geology of eastern North Carolina. But they could require the installation of end-of-pipe controls on confinement houses that would filter the air, that would alleviate some of the stench. They could require drip irrigators or other irrigation mechanisms that don’t rely on those jet-powered sprayers. They could incentivize retrofits on existing hog houses that would help alleviate some of the odor and the flies and the other health impacts. They could require the permitted facilities to meet the clear standards to reduce air pollutants. You know, there’s a whole list of things that we’ve given them in the complaint that would help, like requiring groundwater monitoring.

Ed Emory: Duplin County is ranked #8 out of 100 counties in having a good physical environment in which to live, and that’s according to the state Department of Health. Sampson County is ranked #16 out of 100.

Kemp Burdette: In a nutshell, my concern is that we have, in North Carolina, so many CAFOs—both swine and poultry, and of course recently, a rapidly increasing poultry industry—that the landscape and the environment couldn’t possibly absorb the impacts. So, in North Carolina in the last roughly twenty years, we’ve seen a 21% increase in the number of chickens in the state, we’ve seen about a 22% decrease in the number of farms or CAFOs, so we’re seeing even more concentration of even more birds, so that’s concentrating waste, which is very problematic for the Cape Fear River and other waterways. Most people know about the problems of the swine industry, but now we’re seeing the poultry industry compounding those problems by increasing the amount of industrial animal waste that we have in the landscape.

RLH: John Carter, current contract farmer with Perdue, how is animal waste handled on your farm? What’s the process?

John Carter Jr.: Well, it’s totally different than the hog industry, first, because it’s a dry product. What we do is, we work through a litter broker. We have a nutrient management plan, but we also work through a litter broker that keeps all the records. And it’s a very natural product to use, and many of the farmers use it to land-apply before their crops go on.

RLH: So, Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, the way John Carter is describing this dry litter that then gets sold to a farmer who’s going to use it as fertilizer, what’s the problem with that?

Kemp Burdette: Well, I don’t think it matters if we’re talking about litter or bananas. You can have too much of anything in an environment. In North Carolina, we’re seeing that an average broiler produces about a quarter pound of waste.

RLH: You mean on a daily basis?

Kemp Burdette: On a daily basis, correct. We’re seeing that, you know, these barns have anywhere from 22,000-29,000 birds, so if you start doing conservative calculations there, based on five flocks per year, and just in the Cape Fear River basin, there are about 5,000 chicken barns; in the state of North Carolina there are about 14,400 chicken barns. So if you add all that up, you get about 8.2 billion pounds annually in the Cape Fear River basin and about 23.5 billion pounds annually of poultry waste in the state of North Carolina or in the Cape Fear River basin, respectively. That is a number that is so big it’s almost incomprehensible. It doesn’t matter what it is. The fact that it is waste that has high levels of nutrients, has high levels of bacteria is very problematic. And we’re just talking about poultry right now, we’re not even considering the fact that this is stacked up on top of already existing problems related to swine spray fields.

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April 27th: Hog Industry -- Issues & Economic Impacts

North Carolina is the second largest pork producer in the United States.  Hog farming in the state is largely concentrated in the southeastern region – which includes Duplin, Wayne, and Pender counties and part of Sampson County.  According to the 2012 U.S. Agriculture Census, North Carolina sold nearly $3 billion in pork products that year; of that, Duplin County was responsible for north of $600 million and Sampson County came in second in pork sales with more than $500 million.   Looking beyond sales to the industry as a whole, the North Carolina Pork Council puts the economic impact at $11 billion.  

But it’s a complicated industry.  And it’s currently the focus of a complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency against the state agency that regulates hog farming -- what is now North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality. 

Guests: 

If you missed the show, you can listen to it online or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes

May 4th: Water & Air Quality / Human Health

The business of pork production in North Carolina employed nearly 13,000 people in 2012.  That’s according to a Duke University report.  The swine industry is a key component of North Carolina’s economy.  But there are claims of negative impacts on the environment – specifically on bodies of waters that are in close proximity to concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.  And there are questions about the industry’s impact on human health. 

But the business of hog farming has evolved over the last several decades. 

Guests:

If you missed the show, you can listen to it online or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes

May 11th: Hog Breeding, Growing, and Welfare

North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the United States.  The importance of the industry to the state’s economy – and by extension to the thousands of people whose livelihood it supports – is undeniable.  This is the third edition of CoastLine in our series on hog farming in the state.  In each episode, we’ve narrowed the focus to one aspect of hog production.  We’ve looked at the economics of it as well as questions around environmental justice.  We’ve explored why some scientists say Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations – or CAFOs – negatively impact water quality.  And in those earlier discussions, we’ve heard from listeners wanting to know – and talk about how the animals are bred, raised, and treated. 

So today our focus shifts to animal welfare – or animal well-being.  As we’re about to learn, those two terms are not necessarily interchangeable.  Here to help us navigate the world of CAFOs from the point of view of the hogs – are three experts. 

Guests:

  • Janet Archer is the Vice President of the National Pork Board.  She’s also a hog grower in North Carolina, and she runs a consulting company that trains and certifies other growers.
  • Ashley DeDecker is the Director of Production Research for Smithfield’s Hog Production Division.
  • Nadia Taha is Investigations Editor for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – or PETA.

If you missed the show, you can listen to it online or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes

 

May 18th: Hog Waste Alternatives

North Carolina is host to more than 9 million hogs.  According to the North Carolina Pork Council, the industry generates about $11 billion a year and supports about 46,000 full-time jobs. 

But as we’ve spent the last several editions of CoastLine exploring, not everybody is happy about the industry.  There are questions around environmental justice, impacts to water quality, concerns regarding human health for those who live in close proximity to large hog farms.  And animal rights advocates say Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations use inhumane practices. 

This week’s focus is on alternative uses for hog waste – one of the largest sources of contention surrounding the industry. 

Guests:

If you missed the show, you can listen to it online or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes

May 25th: Poultry Industry

Broilers, fryers, roasters, turkey, chicken – and eggs – those are the products of the poultry industry in North Carolina.   The Poultry Federation claims that it contributes more than $34 billion to North Carolina’s economy.   Statistics from the North Carolina Poultry Jubilee are a bit more moderate:  they claim an economic impact to the state of $12.8 billion.  They don’t disagree so much, however, on the number of jobs this business creates:  between 109,000 and 110,000 people make their living bringing birds and eggs to the table.     

This edition of CoastLine is the final installment in our series on concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.  Over the previous four weeks, we’ve focused on specific elements of hog farming.  Today, we shift the focus to poultry CAFOs.  These farming operations are also a source of concern for environmental advocates.

On this edition, we learn about how large poultry operations function from two contract growers – one current and one former.  And we’ll hear why environmentalists worry the growth of this industry degrades local water quality.

Guests:

  • David Anderson is the former vice president of live production for both Perdue Farms and Butterball. Anderson is also the past president of the Poultry Federation.
  • Craig Watts is a former poultry farmer who once contracted with Perdue Farms. He had a highly publicized disagreement with Perdue over his decision to let an animal advocacy group take pictures inside his farming operation. He has since ended his relationship with Perdue. 
  • John Carter is a current poultry farmer who is a contractor with Perdue.
  • Kemp Burdette is the Cape Fear Riverkeeper.

If you missed the show, you can listen to it online or subscribe to our podcast on iTunes