Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part investigation into North Carolina’s hog-farming industry. The first story examined claims by lower-income African-American residents of eastern North Carolina that neighboring hog farms have polluted their properties and efforts by lawmakers to shield pork producers from litigation. The second looked at the environmental impacts hog farming has had over the last two decades, particularly on waterways such as the Neuse River. This final piece discusses ways to make the multibillion-dollar hog industry more sustainable, both for the environment and the state’s rural population, and the political and financial reasons those steps haven’t been taken. — Jeffrey Billman, editor, Indy Week
Part III: The fix
by Ken Fine and Erica Hellerstein/photos by Alex Boerner
I. ‘Beware. You’re entering Butler hog country’
Tom Butler steps down from his trailer and into the glaring sun. It’s early afternoon in Lillington — a town of nearly 3,500, about 90 minutes southeast of Greensboro — and sticky hot. Butler, in neatly ironed khakis and a button-down, crosses the dusty road in front of his trailer and stops at a row of white hog houses, all built on land his father purchased in 1922.
At capacity, the hog houses hold close to 8,000 pigs. And if Butler was standing on just about any other hog farm this size in North Carolina, the heat would exacerbate the already noxious odor of pig waste to an unbearable degree.
But Butler Farms is different. There is no stench.
Since 2007, Butler’s farm has employed what he describes as an environmentally sustainable system that has the added benefit of reducing the odor. Walking around, there’s the occasional whiff of pig feces — pungent, to be sure — but nothing close to the nauseating smell neighbors of farms in places like Duplin County say they’re forced to endure daily.
The 76-year-old, snowy-haired farmer wears that distinction proudly when talking about his farm, which has drawn praise from the likes of Gov. Roy Cooper, former “American Idol” standout and congressional candidate Clay Aiken and other high-profile individuals whose pictures are tacked onto the wooden door of his trailer. As Butler points to the photos, the dark lesions on his hands and the arthritis-induced hunch in his shoulders speak to decades of hard work.
The story of Butler’s unexpected foray into sustainable hog waste management goes back to 1994, the year he and his late brother decided to try their luck at contract farming.
“Before then, we were traditional farmers,” he says, “transitioning from the tobacco buyout.” They had a construction business, but “we saw an opportunity to bring in income from the farm but in a different way. We’d contract livestock and wouldn’t be competing with the local economy.”
In other words, they’d manage the hog houses and the waste produced by the animals living in them, but they wouldn’t have to worry about supply, processing, or sales.
Things changed quickly, however.
About a week after they brought their first several thousand hogs to the farm, they realized that managing waste meant coping with a pervasive stench that put them at odds with neighbors they’d known since childhood.
“Immediately, we had two or three people that were really angry,” Butler recalls. “They’d call me at night and tell me, ‘My house smells like hog you-know-what,’ or ‘It’s coming in through my air conditioner. I can smell it.’ And then we had one other neighbor and he had a sign made but never put it up: ‘Beware. You’re entering Butler hog country.’ And we smelled it. And it wasn’t good.”
At the time, there was no ready-made solution. But today, Butler’s farm is one of just 10 in the state using technology that converts methane into energy.
He’s proud of the system he’s put in place, although it wasn’t easy. He’s come under fire for his position that the industry, not the farmer, should foot the bill for technologies that make hog farms more environmentally friendly. He loves what he does, but he also believes the widely used lagoon-to-spray-field system of waste management is a “black eye for the industry.”
Butler chooses his words carefully. He doesn’t call himself an activist but rather an “advocate for change to a better waste-management system.” As a contract farmer who cares for hogs owned by Prestage Farms, he knows he must rely on the industry to keep his farm afloat.
“I wish we could get growers to speak,” he says. “If I wasn’t 76, I probably wouldn’t. [But] you get to a point that you’d rather do the right thing and lose than the wrong thing and win.”
II. ‘Get a Learjet’
Walking from Butler’s trailer to the hog houses across the street, you’d never know you were approaching thousands of hogs, or that beneath their feet lurked thousands of gallons of their waste. It took 13 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to even try to solve the problem.
In 2007, Butler and his brother received a $320,000 grant from the Environmental Credit Corporation to cover their two lagoons; Environmental Fabrics Inc. installed the lagoon covers. Butler and his brother then spent about $50,000 on each lagoon to pay for the piping, the concrete and longer-term maintenance. Since then, Butler has paid about $3,000 per year for the lagoons’ maintenance.
“I know that the industry could have all the lagoons covered, but it would be very expensive,” Butler says. “So you could either get a Learjet for your company, or you could cover lagoons.”
He also introduced an anaerobic digester system, which converts the methane sequestered by covering swine lagoons into electricity. According to the EPA, just 39 of the thousands of hog farms in the United States do that. Of them, only 10 are located in North Carolina, the country’s second-largest pork producer.