Several people had approached Don Webb about the odor his hogs created in their community in Wilson County, N.C. At one point, Webb had 400 sows on his property. Hundreds of pigs produced hundreds of pounds of manure, all of which was channeled into a hog lagoon, where it was treated and distributed on spray fields for crop production.
“I knew the hogs stunk,” he said. “I knew I polluted.”
One day, Webb stopped by a local country store near one of his hog operations. The elderly man who ran the store – Webb referred to his as Mr. Bazemore – asked to speak to Webb about the lagoons.
“He said, ‘Don, I don’t want to make you mad, but we have a problem. I’m getting old and I don’t make a lot of money in the store, but the odor from your hogs is beginning to bother some of my customers,’” Webb said.
A week later, one of Webb’s neighbors told him the same thing – he was unable to comfortably sit on his porch because of the odor and flies. Webb decided to do something about the issue. He asked both men to give him six months to a year and he would ensure the smell would dissipate. He had a solution.
Webb closed down the farm and sold the pigs.
“Feces has not changed”
After selling his pigs and withdrawing from the hog business, Webb bought a 500-acre piece of land in Wilson County with about a dozen lakes and a creek on the property. By the 1990s, he was selling fishing privileges to the public.
“Every American has a right to sit in his home and his yard without smelling my animals’ feces and flies and other toxic waste that comes with all that stuff,” he said. “So, I got out of the hog business.”
North Carolina ranks No. 2 for hog production in the United States, right behind Iowa. There are more than 10 million hogs in the state today, which yield 40 million gallons of waste every day.
This waste is stored in massive open-air swine lagoons. The lagoons range from four to 14 feet deep and are lined with clay and feces. As the lagoon fills, the mixture of hog waste and water seeps between grains of soil and creates a sealing effect.
The pigs are contained in Concentrated Animal Farming Operations (CAFOs) in close proximity to the lagoon. They stand on a slat – a concrete slab with slits for feces and urine to fall through to a holding tank. Some systems flush multiple times per day, while others retain waste for up to a week, allowing it to begin decomposition before reaching the lagoon via underground pipes.
Treatment time depends on the size of the lagoon, and the decomposed liquid is periodically pumped out and applied onto spray fields as fertilizer for crops. A thick layer of sludge settles at the bottom of the lagoon. This waste cannot be treated or broken down anymore and accumulates at two to three inches per year. When farm owners need to remove it to keep the liquid level down, a propeller is added to the lagoon to mix the sludge and water. With the particles evenly distributed, some of the contents of the pool are suctioned out and also used as fertilizer.
Glenn Clifton, compliance director of Prestage Farms, designed most of the lagoons in eastern North Carolina. In total, he thinks he designed 80 to 95 percent of the hog lagoons in the region. This totals to around 500 lagoons, about 300 of which are owned directly by Prestage Farms.
Clifton said the lagoons are managed well. Since each farm is different, they have to have their own waste utilization plan, making the properties and makeup of hog lagoons diverse across the state.
“All of a sudden, a county commissioner told me that there was a hog operation going on in front of my recreation center,” he said.
Webb found himself on the opposite side of the struggle he had faced 30 years before.
“It was Murphy Farms, at that time, the world’s largest hog farm, owned by Sen. Wendell Murphy,” Webb said. “I knew that if they put 10,000 hogs down there, it would ruin my place, what I had worked for, what my wife and I had struggled and saved to get.”
Webb jumped at the early opportunity to stop the construction. He contacted Murphy Farms and explained that he was a former hog producer and knew the consequences of building hog lagoons near homes.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re not going to have a problem. Back when you farmed, things were different,’” he said. “But feces has not changed.”
Even when the state government knocked the hog count down to 3,400 for the future farm, Webb knew he was still dealing with a major problem.
“It’s not that I was a great scientist,” Webb said. “I just know what feces and urine and flies are.”
He reached out to Murphy and they decided to meet at one of Murphy’s farms. Murphy promised to show Webb the ins and outs of the process. The senator’s staff pulled onto the property in cars and the senator had arrived in a helicopter. The two men greeted each other and before touring the facility, Webb asked Murphy if he would visit the surrounding community first to see how lagoons had impacted the residents. Murphy accepted the offer.
Webb first took the senator to a trailer park to meet an older couple. One of the residents, a man, had tubes up his nose, was dying of tuberculosis and was constantly smelling the odor of a 3,000-hog operation across the street. His wife started talking to Murphy, not knowing he was a senator.
“She explained to him how her grandchildren would come there sometimes and they went outside occasionally and their clothes would stink,” Webb said. “She talked about the flies and her husband struggling to breathe and she was getting sick a lot. Mr. Murphy listened to all that stuff and saw how bad they were suffering. I said, ‘Well, I hope that Mr. Murphy and I and others can get together and solve this problem.’”
The next stop was the home of a middle-class family. The wife told the senator she had to wear a mask when she cut the grass because the odor was so foul.
Webb also drove Murphy to visit a couple who used to own a non-industrial hog farm. Their son told the senator his parents’ lives were invaded with feces and flies. Friends and family didn’t want to visit and that broke their hearts.
As Webb and Murphy made their way back to the hog lagoon, Webb explained how the odor would only get worse as the sludge built up over time. The men parted with promises of improvement.
Today, aside from the middle-class family, who moved away, all of the people Webb introduced to Murphy are dead.
“I don’t know why they died but I will say this – the last years of their lives, they were American citizens, good Christian people that died under stress,” Webb said. “One sold their home and moved, and the rest all passed away not being able to live the kind of life they wanted as Americans and as human beings.”
Wilson County never saw anything but more hog pens built throughout the community. The odor still hangs thick in the air.
Murphy and the North Carolina Pork Council did not comment.
An economic incentive
Without the pork industry in North Carolina, the state would suffer. More than 46,000 people in North Carolina work in pork production, according to North Carolina Pork Council’s website. The eastern part of the state has the largest concentration of swine and poultry CAFOs in the entire world.
The town of Clinton, N.C. resides in this part of the state. This town is small and has a high dependence on agriculture and livestock for income. About seven miles out of town, surrounded by fields, is the Prestage Farms corporate headquarters.
Prestage Farms owns about 110,000 sows across about 55 farms in the eastern part of the state.
Aside from designing the lagoons, Clifton’s job also includes confirming that the facilities involved with Prestage Farms are in compliance with the rules and regulations issued by North Carolina and the federal government. His responsibilities include ensuring lagoons are a certain distance from homes, businesses, churches and wells.
“They run a tight ship on us,” Clifton said.
There are dozens of regulations in the hog industry, ranging from limiting the distance between the waste and the top of the lagoon to monitoring when the sludge at the bottom needs to be removed. The state started looking into creating regulations after a major lagoon leak in 1995, Clifton said. The lagoon was in Onslow County and spilled more than 20 million gallons of wastewater into the New River.
“We’ve been real lucky here at Prestage Farms. We had one case where a timer failed and it pumped for a while without anyone being around. We were fined for that,” Clifton said. He had joined Prestage Farms just a few years before.
The Division of Water Quality (DWQ) for North Carolina came out to the farm to assess the damage and declare the fine. The spill was not reported in newspapers or data of any kind.
“We kept it quiet,” Clifton said.
While nothing as large as this incident has been reported since, there are reports of accidents with equipment failure and people not paying attention to the pumps, Clifton said. If there were ever an incident like that again, Clifton said it would be nearly impossible to clean up the millions of gallons of water and waste.
“Nature would just have to take care of it,” he said.
But these incidents are rare. Clifton said the company would simply try to clean up the leak or spill as well as they could. He said Prestage Farms’ records help prevent environmental issues. The company records everything from a soil sample every three years to the height of the lagoon each week.
But Clifton’s biggest concern is heavy rainfall.
“The rainfall is more of an issue than anything,” he said. “We can get approximately 45 to 50 inches of rainfall in this part of the country in a year.”
To reduce the risk of overflow, all farmers must maintain 19 inches between the top of the wastewater and the brim of the lagoon. Usually the lagoon contents won’t rise above this mark faster than people can pump it out, but if the surface water starts approaching the 19-inch mark, farm owners have to create a 30-day plan. This proposal outlines what the company will do within 30 days to get the water back to a controlled level.
If the rain becomes chronic, Prestage Farms will bring in trucks with tanks to transport the lagoon’s contents to spray fields. This is an expensive option, but during heavy rain periods, like a hurricane, they don’t have a choice, Clifton said.
Companies like Prestage Farms dominate the hog industry because they control the quantity of hogs and, therefore, the price of pork. Clifton said environmentalists constantly challenge the companies because of the way CAFOs operate. But if the companies cut back on sows, there would be fewer hogs and the price of pork would rise.
Tom Demmy works for the business side of Environmental Technology 3rd Generation, LLC, a company working on an alternative to lagoons in North Carolina. He said this is just the way the industry works.
“We’ll be paying more for pork chops at some point,” he said.
While Clifton is not involved with the producing side of the business, he said he hears other employees talk about the criticism the company receives from environmentalists.
“If we did everything the environmentalists wanted us to do, it would be awfully tough to produce pork for you guys to enjoy,” Clifton said.
The stress and smell that accompany living near a hog lagoon are not the only negative effects people and the environment face.
Rick Dove and his son first realized something was wrong with the river they fished on when they noticed the same sores on their skin that the fish had recently developed. When they started suffering from short-term memory loss, they gave up fishing and sold their boat.
A few years later, he discovered that one of the major polluters of the river was the livestock industry, particularly the CAFOs.
“The industry has taken all the animals off the farms and they put them in city environments,” Dove said.
Dove wanted to stop the CAFOs and the effects they have on the environment. He served as the river keeper at the Alliance for Responsible Swine Industry for seven years, working 65 to 70 hours a week, before retiring.
“People around the world need to understand we have a situation in North Carolina that is very unhealthy,” Dove said. “People think they’re isolated and it won’t affect them. They’re very, very wrong. Because when you violate the laws of nature, and you can pass any law, nature will step in and give us a consequence.”
Even though he retired, Dove is still doing work for the organization.
“My efforts now are almost solely concentrated in the CAFOs,” he said. “That’s one fight we have not won yet but we’re going to.”
The high concentration of swine CAFOs in eastern North Carolina is a perfect breeding ground for disease. One virus – Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA – kills more people than AIDS in the United States. Another disease,Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea (PED), is relatively new in North American and has been an issue with piglet mortality since May 2013.
Mike Williams of North Carolina State University has struggled with balancing the detriments of hog lagoons – like disease and leakage – with the need for the pork industry in North Carolina.
As the head of the Prestage Department of Poultry Science at N.C. State, Williams says he understands both sides of the issue. He said the public’s perception of the issue is overblown by how the media communicate it.
But Williams is concerned with one specific aspect of the lagoons: ammonia emissions.
Livestock waste, especially swine waste, releases a high concentration of ammonia. Both lagoons and production buildings excrete this gas and once it is volatilized in the atmosphere, two things can happen. The ammonia will come back to the surface as wet fall or dry fall. Major problems could result if it falls on a sensitive watershed, but if the ammonia falls into forested area, where there is limited nitrogen for tree and crop production, the ecosystem would most likely benefit. The ammonia may also react with acidic compounds, which can lead to human respiratory defects.
“The thing you hear the most about are odors, but from an environmental and sustainability perspective, I have far more concern about ammonia emissions than I do about odor emissions,” Williams said.
Demmy also said ammonia is a major problem because it accrues under the barn, mere feet away from where the pigs reside. Ammonia also corrodes the roof and exhausts ventilation systems, along with any other metal inside the CAFO.
“Can you imagine animals being raised in a condition where below them there is an eight-foot-deep pit and all that ammonia and everything else is coming off there?” Demmy said. “What [farmers] try to do is blow it out with ventilated fans but when they do, all they’re doing is putting it somewhere else. Those airborne pathogens are going to the neighbors.”
Back on the ground, Williams said the industry is much more aware and better at managing runoff than it was a decade or two ago.
“Yes, there are issues, but are we in an environmental crisis because we have these lagoons? I don’t think so,” he said. “As far as a long-term generational-sustainable [option], I don’t think that they are.”
Country farm life
Hog farms in North Carolina don’t always include CAFOs and lagoons.
Eliza MacLean, owner of Cane Creek Farm in Snowcamp, N.C., owns hundreds of animals – hogs, dogs, cats, chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys, ducks, Guinea fowl, geese and turkeys – but they are spread out on 32 acres of land. She organizes the farm to work as a farrow-to-finish operation, meaning the pigs are birthed there and live there until they are slaughtered for meat or die of natural causes.
“They all have personalities. Everybody has a name,” MacLean said. “It’s not impossible to figure out who gets to stay and breed and have a full life and whole gets to be eaten, basically. The fact that they’re constantly replaced is the way that works. It never gets boring to have a new litter of pigs.”
MacLean said she thinks that the pigs chosen to be used for meat instead of breeding purpose live such a nice life on the farm that it translates to a willing sacrifice.
MacLean’s farm used to be much bigger than it is today. The farm once spanned 600 acres and had six full-time employees. MacLean did a lot of marketing work inside the house and didn’t get to spend as much time with the animals. So, she cut the farm down to 32 acres and now works with one other person, Willy Herold, to keep the farm running and in order.
Pigs in CAFOs usually produce only a few litters and then are sent to be slaughtered. MacLean said she is proud of the natural experience her pigs get at the farm.
“I let them live a normal life and get better and better at being mommas,” she said. “I let them build a nest, let them tend to their young, turn around, sniff them.”
She said she has even had a pig groom her piglets before.
“What they get to do is be a pig,” MacLean said. “They get to run. They get to dart. They get to be nutty.”
Expectations for change
The design of hog lagoons has not changed much in the past 20 years. Demmy and Don Lloyd are looking to erase the whole system and introduce something new.
Llyod is the inventor of a new waste management operation that he calls a Closed Loop System, meaning the liquid of the swine waste can be treated and reused for flushing the barns. The whole structure is 12 feet by 50 feet and can clean out a tank of waste – 850 gallons – in fewer than four hours.
Demmy takes care of the business side of the operation. The men have known each other for more than 13 years.
They both agreed the lagoon system was outdated.
“It was an easy and cheap way for the farmers to get rid of their waste and it’s not practical at this stage in the game,” Demmy said.
The situation hasn’t changed much in the past because legislators in eastern North Carolina are controlled by big company hog farmers, like Smithfield Foods and Prestage Farms, Demmy said.
“Smithfield [Foods] has real control over what’s going on here in North Carolina for years,” he said. “I’m saying it because it’s true. They paid off a lot of lobbyist and stuff like that to get the regulations slacked and get around the rules and laws and stuff. One of the Smithfield founders was even in the state legislator. But that’s changing now.”
Smithfield Foods created a joint program between its industry and N.C. State in the early 2000s to try to find a better alternative to hog lagoons. To qualify for the competition, participants had to have a system that would aid hog waste management. They had the chance to have their model picked up by Smithfield Foods. Llyod entered one of his models that used solid waste to generate electricity, which would eliminate the lagoon, and while it made it far in the competition, it did not win. But the winners were far from perfect.
“They got down to building the ones they did approve and none of them really worked,” Demmy said. “The ones that they ended up starting to build cost well over a million dollars. Anybody with a head or common sense knows that a farmer doesn’t have a million dollars to spend on putting on a system. The systems they did put in were funded by Smithfield or other grants.”
Llyod’s model uses little power, is more efficient than lagoons, works for huge hog populations and isn’t affected by the weather. Because the Closed Loop System eliminates the hogs’ exposure to ammonia, the animals have a higher and quicker growth rate. The system can also be installed on farms without disrupting the production.
Lloyd said he kept the environment in mind while creating this system. Since it recycles water through an oxidation process, it saves about 4,800 of every 6,000 gallons every day for a standard four-barn farm.
The new invention would also cost about $55,000 – a third of its competitors’ price. Demmy said he predicts that the system would pay itself in three to four years. But Demmy said there’s a reason why Lloyd’s creation isn’t out on farms today.
“If the big companies and the farmers don’t have some sort of mandate, they’re not going to change,” he said.
Even though the industry is doing a better job at managing runoff than it was two decades ago, Williams said the hog waste management methods still have a long way to go.
“I have been frustrated with the lack of incentive programs that would help us start to get these technologies on farms,” Williams said. “If we’re serious about keeping this economically important industry in the state, we need to be exploring these things to help ensure that they are environmentally sustainable, not just for next generation but four, five, six generations from now.”