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N.C. hog farmers caught in conundrum: US loves pork, but not Big Pork

Why We Wrote This

Even before Florence, the hog debate in North Carolina had come to symbolize larger environmental questions amid climate change. “I like to say that a hint to the wise is quite sufficient,” says one hog farmer. “Florence was a hint that was sent. We should listen.”

Steve Helber/AP
A hog farm is inundated with floodwaters from hurricane Florence near Trenton, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018.

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When North Carolina hog farmer Tom Butler began raising hogs two decades ago, he was taken aback by his neighbors’ negative reaction. Using a $300,000 grant, he capped the waste lagoons and attached a generator that converts methane into electricity. He now runs an electrical microgrid capable of powering 150 homes. But he is one of just a few farmers in the state to move away from storing and treating waste in open lagoons, more than 50 of which were inundated or overtopped during flooding from hurricane Florence. Hogs may ultimately not be the main contributors to the storm’s toxic legacy, given arsenic-tinged coal ash spills and the release of millions of gallons of raw sewage. But there is little doubt that Florence exacerbated a crisis for Big Pork. At Butler Farms, the capped lagoons kept stormwaters out. When North Carolina Speaker Tim Moore toured this week, there wasn’t much to see in terms of damage. Butler hopes that impressed the powerful Republican as the state ponders lagoon reform. “It is very complex, and we as growers and citizens of North Carolina are sometimes quite frustrated” that taxpayers and corporations haven’t stepped up to help the farmers, says Butler. “We know it will cost more, but people are willing to pay more for safe food and safe air and water.”

Joey Carter had one terrible thought this week when he surveyed lagoons of hog waste filling to the brim on his farm in hurricane-struck Duplin County, N.C.: “Them things are going to bust.”

But the massive lagoons have held firm, even as the storm’s toll rises.

In Mr. Carter’s view, the fact that only 23 lagoons became inundated and 31 have overtopped is a sign of farm ingenuity in a state with 3,300 such lagoons across more than 2,000 farms. Some 5,500 pigs have died.

“We need an atta-boy for the job we’re doing,” says Carter. “We’ve been actively pulling the lagoons down and getting ready. In a normal year, we’re fine. But this is just a catastrophic event.”

In a peculiarity of hog farming, farmers don’t own the hogs; corporate processors like Smithfield do. But as hog stewards, farmers own the waste, some 15.5 million tons per year of which is stored and treated in large lagoons.

Even before Florence, the hog debate had come to symbolize larger environmental questions amid climate change.

“The focus on pigs is because they are more regulated, they are more visible, and they can stink, there’s no doubt about it,” says North Carolina State University environmental engineer John Classen, who focuses on the waste chain.

But that focus does underscore a greater point, says Professor Classen, that “we have been borrowing from the environment to cover part of our costs and we are now bearing those costs not just by damage to the environment, but in terms of people’s health and water quality.”

Hogs may ultimately not be the main contributors to a toxic legacy left by Florence, given arsenic-tinged coal ash spills and the release of millions of gallons of raw sewage from at least seven inundated water treatment plants.

But there is little doubt: Florence exacerbated a crisis for Big Pork.

America's sodden barbecue belt

Carter is its embodiment. He lost a lawsuit last month filed by neighbors, claiming his farm had become a nuisance. As a result, he is winnowing his herd down from 5,000 to zero. When Florence hit, he still had 1,000 head on the farm. In two weeks, they will all be gone, as will his income.

Carter is not a distant industrialist whose factories pollute isolated communities. He is the local fire chief. “I’m not a bad apple,” he says.

But even before pictures of overflowing lagoons, a rash of lawsuits were behind the troubled squints of hog farmers surveying their holdings, and pondering the future.

Farmers like Carter face a bevy of challenges, including urbanization, demographic upheaval, narrow margins, and climate shifts bringing more and bigger flood events. In that way, Florence may define more sharply the challenges for America’s sodden barbecue belt.

“I like to say that a hint to the wise is quite sufficient,” says hog farmer Tom Butler, who raises nearly 8,000 head of hog near the township known as Barbecue. “Florence was a hint that was sent. We should listen.”

Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa are pork powers, too, but North Carolina packs pork and people closer together than any other state. The cultural bonds are just as strong.

The culinary result can be tasted at shacks like the Pik-n-Pig in Carthage or Boss Hog's Backyard Barbeque in Washington: soft and smoky pulled pork bathed in vinegary “dirty sauce,” snuggled up on bacon-infused collards and pintos girded with ham hock.

“Pork has always been part of the culture down here, which is one of the reasons why its image is so complicated,” says Thomas Birkland, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Us city folks love our pork barbecue. But we also know it has to come from somewhere – and not just the supermarket.”

Taste plus affordability is why Americans eat 50 pounds of pork a year each. Pork is on such a roll that US production is expected to for the first time ever exceed that of beef by the end of this year.

But the steeper cost of pork is becoming more evident to people in North Carolina, where three juries in a row have ruled on behalf of neighbors of hog farms. That has clashed with deep-seated agricultural interests that still dominate the state’s gross domestic product. Instead of advocating large-scale reform, the legislature last year capped nuisance verdicts to protect farmers from what Carter calls “big-city lawyers.”

The storm focused that conflict. 

Hog farmers are part of a highly regulated industry using high-level engineering created by land grant universities. They have little incentive to befoul their own land or communal water.

The vast majority also cannot afford to install and maintain technologies that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Processors like Smithfield have been loath to make investments given global profit pressures. A $50 million industry settlement for projects to lower the farms’ environmental impact could help, but is ensnared in a lawsuit.

A hog farmer “isn’t some executive in Manhattan with a plant in Houston,” says Andy Curliss, the chief executive officer of the North Carolina Pork Council. “This is a farmer on land that has come down through his family. They are stewards. They care deeply about the water of the state. It is amazing to see them maligned.”

But cultural and hydrological standards may be shifting. Along with the lawsuit caps, the North Carolina legislature just announced a buy-out program that could remove several farms hit hardest by Florence.

Such acknowledgements come as a study by UNC epidemiologists found higher mortality rates among people living near hog farms, though it did not infer causality.

“The system is flawed even when it’s not failing in disaster,” argues Geoff Gisler, who leads the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Clean Water Program in Chapel Hill, N.C. “It is an everyday disaster for folks that live nearby.”

The state has had a moratorium on new hog farms since the late 1990s and has closed 330 lagoons. Meanwhile, farmers have halved the so-called feed conversion, reducing the amount of waste required per pound of meat.

There are still 3,300 lagoons, many of them in counties like Duplin, which saw disastrous flooding from Florence.

SOURCE: National Weather Service, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

And nearly two decades after the so-called Smithfield Agreement demanded that the pork industry come up with “superior technologies” to deal with waste, only 10 hog operations in the state have moved away from open lagoons. Ironically, the lack of industry growth in the state has stymied innovation even as it loses ground to other pork powers.

Classen says that until it is economically feasible to install technologies that don’t rely on lagoons, it is not fair to blame farmers.

Yet pressure is growing, from storms and demographic shifts. As North Carolina expects to add another 2 million people in the next decade, conflicts are increasing around Raleigh and Charlotte as traditional urban-rural dynamics become complicated by history, politics, culture, and cuisine.

“A lot of people move out to rural areas and suddenly realize that farming is not just a romantic way of life,” says Dr. Birkland at N.C. State. “It is a highly mechanized, highly capital intensive, loud and dusty industry that includes feeding operations and waste. That means you’ll always have conflict as the outer ring of urban areas start to move into agricultural areas.”

Changing hog farming

Mr. Butler, the Harnett County hog farmer, has experienced that tension firsthand. When he began growing hogs two decades ago, he was taken aback by the negative reaction from his neighbors. He was also embarrassed.

Using a $300,000 grant, he capped the lagoons and attached a generator that converts methane into electricity. Improvements over the years – including the addition of Tesla batteries – means he now runs an electrical microgrid capable of powering 150 local homes. The capped lagoons kept storm waters out.

Earlier this week, North Carolina’s speaker of the House, Rep. Tim Moore, toured Butler Farms. There wasn’t much to see as far as damage from the storm, which Butler hopes impressed the powerful Republican as the state ponders lagoon reform.

“It is very complex and we as growers and citizens of North Carolina are sometimes quite frustrated” that taxpayers and corporations haven’t stepped up to help the farmers change their process, says Butler. “We know it will cost more, but people are willing to pay more for safe food and safe air and water.”

At the same time, he says, “it’s not all the industry’s fault. Growers are kind of a breed of their own. They don’t like change. But in a lot of cases, growers do realize they have a real problem and they need help.”

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