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.
Of those, two belong to the state’s largest pork producer, Murphy-Brown LLC, which, according to court records, owns hogs at up to two-thirds of the state’s farms. In an email, Murphy-Brown’s parent company, Smithfield Foods, told us that its hog division is “an industry leader in aggressively studying and implementing manure-to-energy technologies, as well as other potential manure treatment technologies.”
In a statement, NC Pork Council CEO Andy Curliss wrote that the industry strongly supports “the development of innovative approaches to managing hog manure, including the development of renewable energy projects.… North Carolina currently leads the nation in producing renewable energy from swine manure, and two large-scale projects are slated to begin operations later this year.”
Curliss did not respond to a follow-up inquiry asking for more details about those operations.
Solutions do exist, both for the odor issues and the potential environmental problems examined in the first two parts of this series. And the hog industry is aware of them. In 2000, the state attorney general entered into the so-called Smithfield Agreement, in which the industry agreed to fund a $17.1 million experiment to find more sustainable methods of disposing of hog waste.
But experts at NC State University say that — even a decade after the results of that research came to light — not much has happened. The five solutions the study developed were deemed too expensive for existing farms. And because the legislature passed a temporary moratorium on the construction of new hog farms in 1997 — followed by a permanent moratorium on lagoon construction in 2007 — the solutions haven’t been widely adopted on North Carolina’s hog farms.
In addition, NC State professor Mark Rice — who’s part of the school’s animal waste management team — says that funding has also dried up for research into new technology.
“We have a lot of things we’d like to do and research to pursue, but you’ve got to find somebody willing to fund that research,” Rice says. “The [Smithfield Agreement], that was an infusion of money specifically to look at alternative treatment technologies. Since that time, there’s been virtually no money, grant money, available for waste-management research.”
III. ‘They’re in dire straits’
The Smithfield Agreement could’ve been a game-changer.
According to NC State records, the agreement called for a “designee” to oversee the evaluation of 18 potential technologies. Mike Williams, then-director of the university’s Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center, was chosen to fill the role.
The project defined “environmentally superior” technologies as those that met five standards: They eliminated the discharge of animal waste to surface water and groundwater through “direct seepage or runoff”; substantially reduced emissions of ammonia; substantially eliminated “the emission of odor that is detectable beyond the boundaries of the parcel or tract of land on which the swine farm is located”; eliminated the release of “disease-transmitting vectors and airborne pathogens”; and eliminated nutrient and heavy-metal contamination of soil and groundwater.
While the five-year endeavor produced no silver bullet, Rice says, it did identify several technologies that lessened the hog farms’ ecological footprint. One was the anaerobic digester system that Butler uses. Others included a system that flushed waste from the hog houses and used chemicals to remove the solids. The remaining liquid then flowed through tanks, where bacteria removed most of the nitrogen before chemicals removed the phosphorus. (Environmental groups have blamed nitrogen and phosphorus from hog lagoons and spray fields for fish kills in the Neuse River basin.)
The problem, according to the December 2005 majority report of the Smithfield Agreement advisory panel, was that these technologies were not economically feasible for existing farms, only for new farms.
“New farms,” the majority report noted, “do not face the financial dilemma that existing farmers face in having invested already in a waste handling system.”
In other words, existing farms had already spent money digging lagoons and constructing irrigation systems. They couldn’t afford to reinvent the wheel — even though, as the report pointed out, the new technology “could spawn a new set of industry leaders in waste-handling technology, centered in North Carolina. This scenario for future competitiveness of the North Carolina industry is more than just plausible, it is likely to occur.”
After all, the report said, hog production has external costs, such as pollution, “and as long as those costs are being imposed involuntarily on people, communities and businesses outside the farm operation, there will be contingent liabilities (risks) facing the industry.”
These new technologies would mitigate some of those risks — if only someone invested in them. It’s safe to say that hasn’t happened. Or at least, no such industry-wide reform has been realized.
Since the initial moratorium on new hog farms passed in 1997, no new farms have been constructed in the state. Ten farms have implemented anaerobic digester technology. But only two farms in North Carolina are using technologies that meet all of the criteria set forth in the Smithfield Agreement, according to Christine Lawson, manager of the state Department of Environmental Quality’s concentrated animal-feeding operations program.
Because the onus for implementing these systems falls on the farmer, Butler says, many simply can’t afford it. The big pork companies could.
(The $50 million the industry agreed to pay over 25 years as part of the Smithfield Agreement could help, were the money not tied up in a lawsuit filed by Civitas Institute President Francis De Luca, who argues it should go to public schools, like any other fine the state collects. The state says the industry gave the money voluntarily.)
“If somebody [from the industry] comes here and offers to put in a system at no cost to me, I’m at least interested,” Butler says. “Smithfield, they’re in dire straits with their waste. They’ve got the court cases. They need to be doing something. They need to solve their waste problem.”
IV. ‘Ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken’
Jimmy Dixon doesn’t feel the same sense of urgency. Nor does he think the industry has much of a problem to address.
On a Thursday afternoon in June, the Republican state representative swoops into his office in a neatly pressed suit, with perfectly coiffed white hair and pink cheeks. More than two months have passed since Dixon, a former poultry farmer who represents Duplin County, introduced House Bill 467 at the behest of the industry.
HB 467 capped the amount of damages people living near agriculture and forestry operations, including hog farms, could collect in nuisance lawsuits at the reduction of their property’s fair market value. Dixon’s bill — which originally would have nullified 26 pending federal nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC, though that provision was later voted down — attracted strong opposition from environmentalists, industry critics and neighbors of hog farms. But the pushback ultimately proved unsuccessful; the legislature overrode Gov. Cooper’s veto on May 11.
In public comments, Dixon — who has collected more than $115,000 from the industry throughout his political career, according to an Indy Week analysis of campaign finance records — was unsympathetic to HB 467’s critics.
“Is there some odor? Yes,” he remarked at a hearing on the bill. “But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell.” He also dismissed claims that pig feces landed on the houses of farms’ neighbors as “outright lies” and said that the plaintiffs involved in nuisance litigation were being “prostituted for money” by their attorneys. In a letter to the Goldsboro News-Argus, he argued that the bill’s opposition was fomented by “radical groups who have become vicious enemies of our hardworking farmers.”
In person, Dixon is less bombastic. But he’s still unfazed by studies documenting the health and environmental impacts of hog operations. He also believes the state’s regulations are sufficient, and he’s skeptical of the lawsuits filed against Murphy-Brown.
He brushes off claims that the farms’ odor prevents plaintiffs from enjoying everyday activities.
“For people to say they can’t go outside, ‘I can’t barbecue, I can’t invite my neighbors over,’ those are exaggerations,” he says.
But, when asked about plaintiff Rene Miller — who lives down the street from a Warsaw hog farm whose odor she says prevents her from going outside — he says he would be “glad for an invitation to her place.”
“Every single one of us inside and outside the industry should be concerned about Mrs. Miller,” he says. “People who care about Mrs. Miller should come to her defense. But [they] want to take Mrs. Miller or any of these other folks out there and exaggerate or amplify or misrepresent. And that’s not right. Our industry has room and in some instances a need to improve. [But] when you compare where we are today with where we are when this industry started, it’s night and day. Does that justify if there are still abuses, if there are? No. It doesn’t.”
Miller says she would welcome a visit from Dixon.
“I would ask him, ‘How does it make you feel to get up and lie? Are you a Christian? What do you think waking up in the morning?’” Miller says. “I would just look him straight in the eyes. ‘Trade places with me. You step in my shoes and let me step in your shoes. You do it for one week and see how you feel. Come live in my house and I’ll live in yours.’”
V. ‘They don’t have to give me a dime’
What would it take for the industry to step into Miller’s shoes — or simply to believe her?
Those involved in the Murphy-Brown case present two starkly different versions of reality. The plaintiffs say hog farms are making their lives miserable, and they contend that it’s no coincidence that nearly all of the plaintiffs are poor and black.
As evidence, they point to the research of Steve Wing, a now-deceased professor of epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill who linked proximity to hog farms to numerous health concerns and found that the state’s industrial hog operations disproportionately affect African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.
That argument has found some powerful allies, including US Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who in a recent podcast interview denounced the North Carolina hog industry, which he called “evil,” for exploiting its African-American neighbors.
“They fill massive lagoons with [waste] and they take that lagoon stuff and spray it over fields,” he told Pod Save America, recalling a trip to North Carolina late last year. “I watched it mist off of the property of these massive pig farms into black communities. And these African-American communities are like, ‘We’re prisoners in our own home.’ The biggest company down there [Smithfield] is a Chinese-owned company, and so they’ve poisoned black communities, land value is down, abhorrent. … This corporation is outsourcing its pain, its costs, on to poor black people in North Carolina.”
Booker, whose father grew up in Hendersonville and graduated from NC Central University, wrote in a statement: “I saw firsthand in North Carolina how corporate interests are disproportionately placing environmental and public health burdens on low-income communities of color that they would never accept in their own neighborhoods. In North Carolina, large corporate pork producers are mistreating small contract farmers and externalizing their costs onto vulnerable communities, polluting the air, water and soil, and making kids and families sick while reaping large financial rewards.
“And unfortunately, we know this is not just a problem in North Carolina,” he continued. “Similar environmental injustices are occurring right now all over the United States. This is unacceptable to me, and I’m in the process of finding ways for the federal government to start to meaningfully address this problem.”
The industry casts doubt on the plaintiffs and their motives. Hog farmers are conscientious neighbors, the industry argues, and the plaintiffs just want money. As the Pork Council’s Curliss told us: “Most farmers live on or adjacent to their farms and work hard to take good care of the land. They are an integral part of the communities in which they live. They do things the right way and strive to be good neighbors.”
Dixon, meanwhile, discounts Wing’s research because it came out of UNC: “Lots of these studies begin with the end product in mind. And then they construct it for the outcome.”
Then there are the environmental questions. Environmentalists blame the farms for pollution in the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound and say lagoons have the potential to leak into groundwater. They, too, have research, some of it dating back two decades, that supports their claims. Once again, the industry denies this is even an issue. Smithfield claims that hog farming “is the most highly regulated sector in all of agriculture.”
So we’re left to evaluate a reality consisting of diametrically opposed viewpoints.
The industry says it’s doing its best to mitigate whatever damage exists. The Pork Council, for example, makes note of its support of voluntary buyouts of lagoons located inside the Neuse’s floodplain, similar to the buyouts that happened after Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999. Curliss says funding for these buyouts was included in this year’s recently passed state budget. But Gov. Cooper, through spokesman Ford Porter, says the budget — which Cooper vetoed, only to have his veto overridden — didn’t include this funding, and that’s part of the reason he vetoed it.
“The agriculture and forestry industries are vital to our economy, and we should encourage them to thrive,” Porter told us. “But that shouldn’t come at the expense of clean land and water or the basic property rights of North Carolinians. That’s why Gov. Cooper vetoed both a budget that shortchanged the Clean Water Management Trust Fund [which allocated funds for the first voluntary buyout] and recent legislation [HB 467] that would limit environmental accountability of hog farmers and weaken the property rights of their neighbors.”
If the legislature wanted to act, it could take a few decisive steps. There’s the option of phasing out lagoons altogether, a proposal floated by then-Gov. Jim Hunt in 1999. It could create incentives for environmentally superior waste-management technologies. It could also ratchet up oversight, perhaps restoring the number of annual inspections on hog farms from one to two.
But none of those things seems likely to happen. Hunt’s idea was dead on arrival when he suggested it, and its prospects haven’t improved in the intervening 18 years. Dixon told us he has no appetite for any new incentive program, and Republican leaders in the General Assembly aren’t known for endorsing multimillion-dollar environmental initiatives. As for bolstering regulations — well, they’re not known for that, either.
This might not mean much for “Mr. and Mrs. Urbanite,” Dixon’s moniker for the city dwellers living worlds away from the farmers who grow the food they eat.
But what of Rene Miller?
You met her at the beginning of this series, thousands of words ago, when she was getting ready to embark on the short but grueling journey to her family’s cemetery. Next to her family plot sits a hog farm that holds more than 5,200 hogs, and the air was thick with the stench of pig feces. That smell, Miller said, has sucked the joy out of living on her family’s inherited land.
And here we’re presented with one last contradiction. The industry says the lawsuits Miller and the other 500 plaintiffs filed against Murphy-Brown are about greed — “a money grab,” as Smithfield put it. Smithfield and the Pork Council both point out that the lawsuits don’t ask farmers to change specific behaviors.
But Miller says, at least in her case, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I want to be able to go outside,” she says, sitting inside her home with the windows closed. “It ain’t about money with me. I ain’t never been a money person. I ain’t never had a lot of money, so it’s not the money. I would like to go outside, chop my flowers, have a cookout, just sit out there under the tree and don’t have the smell of nothing. They don’t have to give me a dime. Just move this out of here.”
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