Category Archives: Multimedia Journalism (COM450)

Troubled Waters

Rivers stretch like veins across the entire state of North Carolina. From the far western corner of the state to the rivers that rush into the Atlantic Ocean, most North Carolinian rivers serve as a source of drinking water and outdoor recreation for the communities that surround them.

But almost all these rivers are in danger for a variety of reasons.

In the western part of North Carolina, coal ash ponds dot the landscape around the Catawba River. The possibility of leakage and untreated discharges threatens the overall health of the river. The Neuse River, which flows southeast into the Pamlico Sound in the Atlantic, is also endangered by this looming threat.

Last February, most of the nation’s headlines were centered on the Dan River coal ash spill. This river, which winds along the border of North Carolina and Virginia, is still under repair. The Haw River, south of the Dan, is also recovering from a recent wastewater spill. The Haw suffers from storm water runoff, as well as the community’s outdated view on the health of the river, but it was also just named No. 9 on American River’s top 10 endangered rivers list.

Various organizations and companies have dedicated themselves to the health and recovery of these four rivers. Through education, outdoor recreation and conservation, the public is gaining more access to information about the rivers that flow through their communities. Since all these rivers move through urban areas, it is impossible for them to remain pristine. Waste, runoff, trash and chemicals all threaten their biological health and have impacted the people who live with the river in their backyards.

Even as these organizations fight an uphill battle to clean North Carolina’s rivers, drinking water is still contaminated. All four profiled rivers – the Haw, Neuse, Dan and Catawba – as well as many other rivers, provide many resources for the surrounding communities. Polluting them endangers not only the wildlife that lives in or near the river, but also the people who rely on it.


I was chosen to lead a group of eight young professional journalists to complete an in-depth, multimedia project concerning the various issues with four major rivers in North Carolina. As a well-rounded group, we covered the Haw, Dan, Neuse and Catawba River. To read the whole story, as well as fiddle around with our interesting and interactive multimedia, please click here.


Planting new seeds, perspectives in the modern apparel industry

By Stephanie Butzer

Young broccoli stalks lean toward the sunlight inside the TS Designs building. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Young broccoli stalks lean toward the sunlight inside the TS Designs building. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

In the corner of a dim T-shirt warehouse in Burlington, N.C., surrounded by buckets of colored dye and paint-splattered rotating machines, are rows of broccoli sprouts, barely an inch tall.

They lean toward the sliding door in front of them, where, on the other side, a handful of chickens nervously peck at company shop fruits and vegetables that didn’t make it to the register in time.

Back inside, Eric Henry, wearing a gray shirt reading “TS Designs,” works on a PowerPoint at his desk. The late afternoon sun brightens the room. The lights are off.

The first slide on his computer reads, “98%.”

“That’s the percentage of clothes we buy that are made overseas,” he says.

Henry is the president of TS Designs, an apparel manufacturing and screen-printing company focused on sustainable, high quality and long-lasting T-shirts. Instead of reaching overseas for cheap labor like most apparel companies, TS Designs receives almost all its blank T-shirts from the Carolinas. The entire process – from farm to finished product – spans only 600 miles, just a fraction of the distance most other shirts travel.

While this has a positive environmental, social and economic impact on the United States, TS Design customers do have to pay a little extra.

“It’s not that our T-shirts cost too much,” Henry said. “I will compete with any apparel company in the world. Just don’t bring price to the table. When people come here, if you’re only interested in the lowest possible price, we’ll have a short conversation.”

The cost of labor in the United States is much higher than what is offered to workers in countries like China and Bangladesh. This is because the United States produces better quality materials in factories where Americans require higher salaries. By paying more for better clothing, American shoppers allow for more jobs in the country and, with the methods TS Designs implemented, a healthier environment, Henry said. But many people do not understand the process or impact involved with buying clothing.

“The problem we have is that we get so infatuated with the price, we never ask other questions,” Henry said.

The aspects of a clothing purchase that aren’t questioned can sometimes be harmful, and even lethal, to those working in factories across the globe.

Henry said business can be a component of positive change, but Americans have to look at it differently than they do now and need examples to look up to and mimic.

TS Designs is striving to be that business.

Check the tag

When deciding between two similar products, most people will examine the price tag and go to the register with the cheaper item. But price isn’t limited to just that product. There is a price on production.

This is why TS Designs uses North Carolina labor at about $15 an hour. Having North Carolinians create the shirts instead of factories overseas keeps more jobs in the state and boosts the economy, even though the products cost more.

For a while in the early 1990s, TS Designs flourished. It had big corporations, like Nike and Gap, buying shirts from them. While creating mass materials for these companies, TS Designs was also able to generate a profit and support sustainable apparel manufacturing in the community.

“I felt like, as a business, we had to be good stewards of the Earth,” Henry said. “Those characteristics, instincts, were part of our business but nobody really cared about it – Nike, Tommy, Gap, Polo. All they cared about was that we produced a quality product on time.”

The normal business model of the time didn’t look beyond that aspect of production and that employees had access to health care and retirement. But TS Designs went beyond these requirements. The company focused on environmental stewardship, produced a high-quality, competitively priced product, and had employee benefits. By the mid-1990s, it had more than 100 employees.

But in 1994, everything changed.

The United States had signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, better known as NAFTA, in late 1994 and it went into effect the following January. This agreement resulted in a massive shift in the apparel industry. It was designed to promote free and fair trade between the three signees – Mexico, Canada and the United States. It also caused the “de-industrialization” of the United States, meaning more American jobs were displaced outside the country.

Apparel production moved almost instantly outside the United States’ borders, where labor was cheaper. This ended up bankrupting many small businesses and unemployed tens of thousands of people.

“I saw my business, over the period of two years, go from 100 employees to 14,” Henry said. “We were devastated because the business that we built – there was just no future for it.”

The brands TS Designs produced shirts for could not get the apparel overseas fast enough. It seemed like there weren’t any reasons to make apparel in the United States since a company would need to outsource its highest cost – which would be labor for TS Designs – to cheaper sources.

Most western brands that had previously worked with TS Designs, such as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Gap, Polo, Ralph Lauren and Adidas, changed their business models to get their labor offshore.

Henry also had to change the focus of TS Designs while ensuring the business could still support itself and be involved in the community. One of Henry’s friends suggested he look into using a triple bottom line sustainable business model. It focuses on the three P’s: people, planet and profit. After analyzing the model and comparing it to TS Designs’ current plan, Henry realized most of the components were already in place.

ThreePsTS Designs worked to build up this model and started to spread interest in sustainability in the community.

With this new method in his head, Henry started examining the idea that the price and real cost of production had starkly different definitions. The cost of production was something American shoppers rarely took into account.

This concept became tragically clear on the morning of April 24, 2013, when an eight-story Bangladeshi apparel factory collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people and leaving more than 2,500 injured.

“Why does that happen? 26 cents an hour is why that happens,” Henry said.

Only the concrete flooring remained intact. It was considered the worst apparel disaster in history.

“People say, ‘oh my God, how does this happen? Why do we let this happen?’” Henry said. “Real simple economics: We pay those people 26 cents per hour. So don’t be surprised. When you have a publicly traded company that’s in business to maximize return for their shareholders, where are [they] going to go? [They’re] going to go to get the cheapest labor.”

Relatives of those lost in the rubble were given $700 as death benefits if they could prove they had a family member who died.

Henry did not use the event as a catalyst to change people’s minds. He said it was not his duty to tell people they shouldn’t buy something made in another country. He said he just wanted, and still wants, the information out there for public knowledge.

After the tragedy, Henry said people started realizing what the term “cheap” really meant.

“Who was responsible for that cost of [Bangladeshis] manufacturing in a facility that should never have been built?” he said. “That cost was not incurred or passed along.”

Click for an interactive graphic describing the increase in oversea apparel manufacturing between 2005 and 2011. Graphic by Stephanie Butzer.

Click for an interactive graphic describing the increase in oversea apparel manufacturing between 2005 and 2011. Graphic by Stephanie Butzer.

The cost of T-shirts from TS Designs is more than other custom T-shirt companies, but Henry said this shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

“Most people don’t understand our value proposition and only understand price,” Henry said. “They’re ordering 100 shirts for some event and they’ve been used to paying X and they see our prices are Y or X2 and they don’t understand the difference between a domestic-made product and an overseas product. Organic cotton and conventional cotton. Water-based and plastic.”

It’s similar to purchasing food from a fast food restaurant. The food is fast and cheap. But the cost of environmental degradation, obesity and energy is rarely acknowledged, Henry said.

“We run around the world chasing cheap labor so we benefit from it,” he said. “We have a broken apparel system.”

Building meaningful communities

Young saplings were one of the first additions to the new TS Designs building. When the company bought the squat building they currently own, employees planted young saplings around a grassy area around the front door.

That was 24 years ago and today, the trees are tall enough to provide ample shade.

The building sits off a small road in Burlington. It’s easy to miss it, but it’s alive with activity inside. White shirts are printed Monday through Thursday. Friday is dedicated to garment dyeing the materials. The prints are in the fabric, not on it, so buyers don’t have the scratchy material that cracks and peels after a few rounds in the washing machine, Henry said.

Before heading off to their various destinations, the shirts must go through an aggressive inspection process to ensure there are no holes or defects.

Eric Henry works in his garden beside his home. He grows multiple vegetables and his tractor, as well as his car, runs on biodiesel. Click for more photos from around his home. Photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Eric Henry works in his garden beside his home. He grows multiple vegetables there and his tractor, as well as his car, runs on biodiesel. Click for more photos from around his home. Photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Behind the building, there is a community garden, chickens and wooden bee hives. The chickens live in a fenced-in area where they help make the soil fertile by pecking and scratching at it. Henry has a similar arrangement at his near-net-zero-energy home.

“All the eggs and all the vegetable in that garden go back to our employees, including the honey [from the bees] for them to use,” Henry said.

Henry said he is interested in being a part of his community and changing the way people see the apparel industry. With clothing, once people understand a company is legitimate, they’re willing to help you, even with things not related to the industry, Henry said.

“I have everything from bee consultants to chicken consultants,” he said. “These are people that are passionate.”

One of the people Henry connected with was Ronnie Burelson, a cotton farmer in New London, N.C. Henry asked if TS Designs could buy cotton from him and he accepted the offer. This partnership would become part of a collaboration of farmers and production companies known as Cotton of the Carolinas.

Instead of traveling 17,000 miles, like most other T-shirts, all TS Designs apparel travels only 600, prompting their tagline, “Dirt to Shirt.” This collaboration produces better quality and longer-lasting shirts. It also impacts 500 American jobs.

Screen shot 2014-04-09 at 11.47.34 PM

Click for interactive graphic depicting the difference between overseas apparel manufacturing and the Cotton of the Carolinas process.

“What happens with [being] local is you’re keeping the money in your community,” Henry said. “You’re supporting the people you know.”

The entire process, from the farm to the dyeing procedure, is transparent. A buyer can use a style number on their T-shirt tag and use Google Maps to find exactly where each step of the process happened, as well as that person’s contact information. The program focuses on local economies, little transportation and complete transparency. TS Designs is the only T-shirt brand that offers this.

“We need to know where things are coming from, where our money is going [and] where things are made, but I’m very concerned with the lack of transparency that we’re having in our manufacturing and political system,” Henry said. “If we had better transparency, we might not have had that situation in Bangladesh.”

Henry’s interest in all things local narrows all the way down to the TS Designs building. The neighborly sense of community Henry shaped in the company has gone a long way.

The company’s social media director, Jen Busfield, said the garden behind the building is one of the many ways TS Designs keeps employees connected to the soil. The garden provides extra organic vegetables for employee use and also teaches a life skill.

“It’s teaching us how to be connected to the soil, which matters, especially for our in-house products that are grown here in North Carolina,” she said. “It matters in a lot of ways.”

As the social media director, Busfield knows several other companies that, like TS Designs, have a triple bottom line and a focus beyond monetary gain.

“Whether that’s giving back to charities as social enrichment or if that’s in the way they process their goods, [the companies] are paying attention to how much they may be taking,” she said.

With all the innovations TS Designs has and continues to make, there is a definite need for an ambassador, Busfield said.

“It needs a cheerleader because it’s not a popular message,” she said. “It’s not a popular product. Extra work – who wants to do that? Pay more for a product – who wants to do that? But when you hear the story and you see [Eric’s] excitement and how passionate he is about the choices that his company has made and the choices he makes as an individual working together – it’s awe-inspiring.”

Travis Clark, the screen department manager, said this direction is definitely the one the company, and other American stores, should be heading toward.

Henry is a big believer of this, Clark said. But, business aside, he’s also a good friend.

Even though his employees would never know about it, Henry also does a lot of behind-the-scene work that benefits the company, Clark said.

Clark had a heart attack in 2010 and about 15 minutes after his surgery, he said his family and Henry were standing besides his bed to make sure he was doing well.

“He’s helped me out,” Clark said. “He’s done a lot for me. He’s a good man. Eric Henry is a good man.”

Stirring significant change

On a warm afternoon toward the end of February, Henry stood on a red, circular carpet on a stage at Elon University in North Carolina.

Eric Henry speaks about TS Designs and the flaws in today's apparel manufacturing business at a TEDx event on Elon University's campus. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Eric Henry speaks about TS Designs and the flaws in today’s apparel manufacturing business at a TEDx event on Elon University’s campus. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Students from the university had invited him and three other pioneers in their field to speak at a TEDx event. The theme of this lecture, which was an independently organized version of the popular TED Talks, was “Innovation into Practice.”

Two television sets on either side of him lit up with a familiar PowerPoint slide. They read, “98%.”

“I remember what the apparel business used to be,” Henry said, after explaining what 98 percent stood for. “I lived through that. I remember when it used to be 98 percent [made] here. Now, it’s 98 percent away.”

His lecture ended with a homework assignment: Look at labels on clothing. Find where they’re made. Do research.

The TEDx event is not Henry’s only connection to the school. He has been involved with the Koury Business Center alongside many Elon professors, like Kevin O’Mara.

O’Mara, a professor of management, said he sees more businesses moving toward eco-friendliness and positive social impact.

“There are a lot of reasons for companies to want to do this,” O’Mara said. “There are very little negative reasons other than high cost.”

O’Mara likes Henry’s business plan because there is an actual business side of the company. It’s not just a cause Henry supports in his free time. He works with TS Designs from an economic point-of-view and knows it needs to pay off in the short term and long term, O’Mara said.

“This idea of throwing it back to the community, getting back to nature and the environment, finding ways to use this as an advantage rather than treat it as a social cause – I think it’s enlightening,” O’Mara said. “If it’s purely a cause, then there’s a cost associated with it. But if it happens to be something that works, as well as supports the environment and the people in this community, then it’s a win-win. What I think Eric is trying to capture is a lot of these win-win opportunities heavily doused on the side of environmental concerns, but not to the point where it would jeopardize his business.”

Henry said he enjoys engaging with students at Elon and beyond because they hold control of the future and will face challenges he had never confronted before. But once people start understanding the problem at hand, they can start contributing to change, Henry said.

Tag Collage w quote.jpg.jpg“If you don’t know about something, fine, I’ll cut you a lot of slack,” Henry said. “But once you’re in light and aware of what you’re doing, that action has a negative impact on others and you’re part of the problem now.”

But Henry said he sees a lot of young people looking for more from life than a big house and a nice car.

“They also understand, which I’m a big believer of, that success determines how we all do,” Henry said. “If I’m the only one successful and have a good life and everything around sucks, unfortunately my life will suck because what makes us is our community. That’s what drives me to what I want to do. This is where I live. This is where I work.”

Henry also plays a prominent role in the Burlington community. He founded the Burlington Biodiesel Co-op and Company Shops Market, a co-op grocery market where all the food is made locally. He is also working to get Burlington’s Beer Works Co-op off the ground. These shops are part of a plan to revitalize downtown Burlington and connect the community to local resources with community-owed stores.

Henry doesn’t look at this venture as a way to change the whole world and take the city back from superstores. He knows he will not convince every person he talks with to pay closer attention to the benefits of local products and the real cost of manufacturing outside the United States.

While he is not expecting all the jobs to return to America, he said he knows America can do better than 98 percent.

“I tell people it’s not all coming back,” he said. “We live in a global marketplace and I’m not going to fool myself, but we need to balance the scales.”

From awareness to action

Change starts when a switch is turned on or off, like a light bulb, after being presented with new, factual information.

In TS Designs’ case, the light switch is always off, but ideas are constantly bouncing around. Large windows let in plenty of sunlight and the electricity bill remains low.

“Typically we would have a meeting in an office and rarely do the lights come on,” Henry said. “If we need to, we’ll put them on, but it’s that awareness factor.”

Sometimes the consequences from decisions are invisible, which is why Americans aren’t paying the true economic cost of their choices, Henry said. While some people have a deep-rooted passion for sustainable manufacturing, others are not interested. And that’s okay, Henry said. With the amount of evidence that reveals society is headed in the wrong direction, Henry said he doesn’t have time to worry about those who are still on the fence.

“I’m not interested in getting involved with people that still don’t think it’s important,” Henry said. “That’s fine. Do your thing. I’m going to work with the people that say, ‘we have a problem. Let’s work it out.’”

This mindset is what created Cotton of the Carolinas and the multiple co-ops in Burlington.

Henry_TransparencyQuote.jpgCompanies like these hold a lot of power for change, but their transparency is crucial.

“There is no question I won’t answer, there is no place I won’t take you,” Henry said. “We’re not a perfect company. There’s always room for improvement. There’s always room to do a better job and change and all that and we want to be open to that.”

This is why sustainability is a journey, not a destination, Henry said. It takes time and patience to change a nation’s – or even a community’s – mindset.

Henry said there is comfort in the change since it encourages positive behavior in a community.

“We’re all in this thing together,” he said. “We have this one planet. But we become disconnected. We don’t know where our power comes from. We don’t know where our food comes from. We don’t know where our clothes come from.”

But this can change over the next few decades, just like the gradual acceptance of climate change and eco-friendly light bulbs. Without similar improvement and awareness about the apparel industry, things are only going to get worse, he said.

Luckily for Americans, it’s easy to access that information. Henry said he is thankful for that, but not many people will take the time to research the products they purchase. Finding the origin of everyday products becomes a chore. For many, it’s easier to ignore. But this attitude leads to disasters like the factory collapse in Bangladesh.

“We are ultimately responsible to the planet and society so we have to do our part and get off this mindless treadmill that everybody is on,” Henry said. “It starts with you. It starts with knowing.”

Murky waters: North Carolina wrestles to manage hog waste disposal

DSC_0180.jpg-604x270By Stephanie Butzer and Carly Hidyard

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.”

This sow lives on Cane Creek Farm. She has never lived in a Concentrated Animal Farming Operation. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

This sow lives on Cane Creek Farm. She has never lived in a Concentrated Animal Farming Operation. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

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.

Prestage Farms pigs spend their lives standing on concrete slats. Keeping hogs in a contained space allows the pork industry to feed millions of people. Photo by Stephanie Butzer

Prestage Farms pigs spend their lives standing on concrete slats. Keeping hogs in a contained space allows the pork industry to feed millions of people. Photo by Stephanie Butzer

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.

Click here for interactive graphic providing information on North Carolina counties and swine lagoon locations.

Click here for interactive graphic providing information on North Carolina counties and swine lagoon locations.

“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.

Cane Creek Farms in Snowcamp, N.C. owns hundreds of pigs and piglets. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Cane Creek Farms in Snowcamp, N.C. owns hundreds of pigs and piglets. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

“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.

Glenn Clifton explains the importance of storing food for hogs at the corporate building. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

Glenn Clifton explains the importance of storing food for hogs at the corporate building. Photo by Stephanie Butzer.

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.

Click for interactive image containing video and photographs of Prestage Farm P-300.

Click for interactive image containing video and photographs of Prestage Farm P-300.

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.

Nature’s consequences

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.”

imaThe 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.

Click for interactive image to see photos and video of the pigs and piglets of Cane Creek Farms.

Click for interactive image to see photos and video of the pigs and piglets of Cane Creek Farms.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.”

A way with words: Elon senior prepares to push her poetry beyond graduation

By Stephanie Butzer

Elizabeth Purvis is currently in an Advanced Creating Writing course, which requires her to edit peers' work on a regular basis. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Elizabeth Purvis is currently in an Advanced Creating Writing course, which requires her to edit peers’ work on a regular basis. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Elizabeth Purvis, known to her friends as Liz, could read when she was three years old, something most children don’t practice until they’re five or six.

“I know that because my sister was born when I was two and a half and I was reading in the waiting room of the hospital,” she said.

Now, as a senior English major at Elon University, literature and creative writing is what she does best. She has her plate full as the managing editor the Colonnades Literary Journal, an Elon College Fellow and the vice-president of the Elon chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society.

But when Purvis first came to Elon, she thought she was going to major in literature and professional writing and rhetoric, not creative writing. By her sophomore year, she realized she was not happy sitting at a computer for four hours at a time, she said.

Instead, she decided to revisit some of her creative writing talents she had vaguely explored in high school. Just one class – Introduction to Creative Writing – was enough for Purvis to drop her professional writing and rhetoric major and pick up a creative writing concentration.

During the Winter Term of that year, Purvis embarked to Ireland with other Elon students in a study abroad program. There, she studied Irish literature, culture and history. During her travels, the class read a poem titled “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland, an Irish poet.

“It was really, really beautiful and terrible and gut-wrenching,” Purvis said. “And I thought that was awesome. I don’t know what she did, but I wanted to read more of that.”


Of all the poetry she has written, Purvis is most proud of “Eight-Ball.” Click here to read or listen to the poem, and read about her thoughts on the piece.

The poem told a story of a sickly couple during Ireland’s potato famine years. They were kicked out of a workhouse and later died in the snow in front of another workhouse.

That piece solidified Purvis’ passion for poetry.

“It’s the love poem that’s not super mushy because there’s no time for that in this – they’re sick and dying and her feet were against his breastbone,” she said. “The last gift he gave her was his last heat. That’s just beautiful and sad. It just did something for me.”

With “Quarantine” in the back of her mind, Purvis returned from Ireland determined to throw herself into poetry. When she told her friends from home that she was now writing poetry on a regular basis, they told her they already knew.

“They were like, ‘yeah, of course you write poetry. That’s a thing. What do you mean you didn’t know?’” she said. “It took me longer to realize than the people around me.”

In high school, Purvis and her friends had kept blogs as creative outlets and it gave them ways to communicate without having to say, “‘Ugh. Life is hard. I’m being angsty,’” Purvis said.

When her high school AP Literature class introduced creative writing prompts at the end of her senior year, Purvis was very enthusiastic about the project, while most of the class didn’t enjoy it. Purvis said the assignment was to read James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and then write an imitative piece: a portrait of the blank as a young blank.

“Mine was 15 pages,” Purvis said. “All my classmates hated me, in a loving way.”

Her school’s English department ended up making a special English award for her work.

Four years later, professors still consider Purvis an exceptional student.

Kathy Lyday-Lee, an English professor at Elon as well as Purvis’ academic advisor and Fellows advisor, said Purvis is such a good reader she was asked to be a beta reader – somebody who critiques a work and edits for grammar and style – for the final draft of a novel Lyday-Lee is working on.

“She has very, very keen editing skills,” Lyday-Lee said. “I mean, amazing editing skills. Out of all the readers we’ve had so far for our novel, she is the one that has found the most things and asked the most pointed questions. I’m thinking, ‘this is an editor-to-be.’”

easelly_visual (4)During her junior year at Elon, Purvis started looking seriously into attending graduate school.

“The whole grad school thing came when I realized I would like to write poetry,” Purvis said. “So, how do I write poetry and feed myself and not live at home? I also love workshop [the process of editing peers’ work]. I love sitting in a group of people and doing the critiquing and marking up and showing what line I love and what line is weak. I love that. That’s what MFA programs – Masters of Fine Arts creative writing programs – are.”

Her roommate and good friend, Kiley Brandt, said she likes Purvis’ writing because there is a personal part of Purvis in all of her work.

“She’s working through her thoughts in creating these poems,” she said. “They aren’t always what she feels exactly, but something that’s been nagging at her or something she wanted to express. They’re truthful as an expression of her, but it’s kind of a warped truth that you can’t take at face value sometimes.”

After months of research and applications, Purvis hopefully waited to hear about acceptances. Lyday-Lee said she knew Purvis put a lot of effort into the search for the right school because she wasn’t writing dozens of recommendation letters. Purvis ended up applying to seven graduate schools: the National University of Ireland at Galway, Hollins University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, N.C. State University, University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Vanderbilt University.

The first school she heard back from was the National University of Ireland in Galway. But, due to financial concerns, she reluctantly declined the offer.

“There was a spiral of, ‘what am I going to do?’” she said. “There’s a 1 percent acceptance rate in MFA schools. It’s a 600-people-apply-for-six-spots kind of situation at most of the schools that have MFA programs.”

The wait continued.

Click for interactive image describing how Purvis writes her poetry.

Click for interactive image describing how Purvis writes her poetry.

Brandt, who was by her side throughout the process, expected Purvis to get into graduate school. She said she would also go beyond just grad school.

“I think Liz will write some amazing poetry and become one of those elite people at literature and poetry panels who have become the expert in their field,” she said. “She’s directly involved in making her ideas a reality. If she has one foot in a dream, then she has the other moving toward it.”

Then, Feb. 12, an email appeared in Purvis’ inbox from N.C. State’s MFA Creative Writing Program. It was from Dorianne Laux, a poetry professor in the school’s MFA program. She asked Purvis if she’d still like to be on the waiting list. But Purvis could barely get over the fact one of her favorite poets had directly emailed her.

easelly_visual (3)“I freaked out. I was like, ‘oh my goodness, I put one of your poems on my blog and I love it and I stare at it and I was reading it yesterday and you just emailed me,’” she said. “I said, ‘Yes, of course I want to be on your waiting list. I would be so honored to be accepted into N.C. State’s program.’”

Two hours later, she received another email.

“[Dorianne Laux] emails me and is like, ‘we have two more spots open so you’ve been moved to the acceptance list. Congratulations. It’s fully funded. You’re going to get an official letter from so-and-so soon,’” Purvis said. “I was freaking out; did a happy dance in the snow. I told my roommates I got accepted and it started snowing.”

As somebody who likes to be prepared for everything in a field full with disheartening rejections, Purvis could finally breathe easy as she waits to hear from the other schools.

“I’m actually going to get to go to grad school next year and that’s really, really cool,” Purvis said. “I know what the next two years are going to be.”

US reacts as Russia hesitantly accepts gays in Winter Olympics

Viewers had more than just athletic ability on their minds as the 2014 Winter Olympics began in Sochi, Russia.

Last summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin created regulations allowing police to arrest people who were thought to be gay or pro-equality and didn’t allow Russian children to be adopted by anybody living in a country where same-sex marriage exists.

Vladimir Putin talks in a Russian interview about how homosexuals are welcome to the Olympics, but to stay away from their children. Click for link. Photo from MCT Campus.

Vladimir Putin talks in a Russian interview about how homosexuals are welcome to the Olympics, but to stay away from their children. Click for link. Photo from MCT Campus.

Russia’s homosexual propaganda law, which makes it illegal to spread information about homosexuality to minors, pushed the International Olympic Committee to take a stand. These regulations contradict the charter of the the IOC, which is against discrimination of any kind. During a meeting in late January, Putin approached the issue from a different angle and said homosexual athletes would be safe to compete in Sochi, but were not allowed to go near Russian children.

Daniel Vaudrin, president of the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, said this discrimination to homosexuals would be similar to the Russians not allowing athletes of the Islamic faith to participate. He added there has been homosexuality in sports since the Greek times.

“As with all human rights, it takes a lot of time for a society or culture to accept different things,” Vaudrin said. “You look at the Declaration of Human Rights that was signed in the 1940s and there’s still stuff in there. It’s a constant fight to do this.”

He said the Russian government is not going to wake up and excuse themselves for what other countries deem a mistake. But Vaudrin is confident that in time, the Russian government will learn to accept homosexuals.

colliding sports and politicsBut these acceptances  will take time.

When gay couples walked into the Buncombe, N.C. County Register of Deeds office asking for a marriage application, Drew Reisinger, the register of deeds, denied same-sex marriage queries. But when one of his friends walked into the office with her spouse and child, something changed.

“Then I really started to see the human element and I was like, ‘oh my goodness, these really are humans that we’re denying the same rights we do to every one else and doing it consistently,’” he said. “It broke me down and I realized we needed to figure out how to start to doing something differently.”

While he does not deny same-sex couples the marriage application, he knows it will take a lot more than one office in North Carolina to alter this internationally controversial topic, especially as tension rises with Russia’s anti-gay laws.

But some Americans remain rooted in what they interpret from the Bible: homosexuality is a sun.

While Peter LaBarbera, president of Americans for Truth, agrees with this and said it is wrong and unnatural, he said being gay does not define a person. But as a faithful Christian, he said he can’t tell a homosexual couple that they can be a couple.

LaBarbera said he is very bothered by the pressure the United States has put on Russia to change their culture to accept homosexuality, especially as the pro-gay activists continue to paint Russia as an evil country.

“Who are we, America, to lecture Russia? We’ve got AIDs and Christians losing their jobs because they oppose homosexuality,” he said. “The gay activists like to make themselves the victims. Now, there are other people who think they are the victims of gay activism. Gay activists are doing everything they once claimed were being done to them.”

quote2Mary Jo Festle, an Elon University history professor and specialist in sports and LGBTQ history, said the Olympics is a perfect time to spark discussions with the pressure Americans are placing on Russia’s laws. But she is worried about the rights and quality of life of LGBTQ people in Russia.

“I don’t know what all [other] countries [at the Olympics] are doing, but it seems like most of the ‘pressure’ being exerted on Russia is largely symbolic expression of disapproval of the [anti-gay] policy,” she said.

As the international coverage continues, LaBarbera said the demonization of Christians from all over the world will continue. Some “hardcore activists” go as far to say gay rights supersedes religious freedom in the United States, which LaBarbera said is against the very nature of freedom as an American.

Randy Orwig, senior pastor at the Elon Community Church in Elon, N.C., said he went into theological training and biblical studies believing homosexuality was wrong because the Bible said so.

But as Orwig examined the text, he realized the Bible was not against gay men and women.

“It is misunderstood and taken out of context and placed in modern-day context in dangerous ways,” he said.

Although the Olympics come with clashing opinions this year, the games have never been just about athletic skill. Various beliefs, religions and laws lead cultures to political debate about racial discriminations, Nazism, sex discrimination, free speech and international aggression. With the terrorism and wars happening across the world, Orwig said the games should be an opportunity for people to focus on peace, which is why they were created in the first place.

“As a religious understanding, we’re all on a journey and we’re going to continue to work to that journey,” Orwig said. “I think once we understand that we can welcome others with an open mind and an open sense of affirmation that it makes us stronger. I think we will actually be getting close to peace because of that.”