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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pigs to People: Hog Farming Boom

Air Date: Week of

In North Carolina, pork now outweighs tobacco as the state's major product. Aileen LeBlanc reports from North Carolina on the environmental impacts of the hog farm boom. Waterways that transport hog waste and drinking water are being especially hard hit by this rising industry.


CURWOOD: Nationwide, more and more meat is being produced from factory farms where thousands of animals are concentrated into small spaces. In North Carolina, for example, so many hogs are being raised on factory farms that pork has replaced tobacco as the state's top agricultural product. Most of North Carolina's hogs are owned by a few large corporations, and are raised on contract at what used to be family farms. Critics charge that confinement hog farming causes air and water pollution and undercuts producers who use more sustainable methods. From member station WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina, Aileen LeBlanc has our report.

LeBLANC: The sign on the dirt road which turns into Ronny Mathis' farm has the picture of a pig, the words, "Prestage Farms," and the name of the Mathis' farm Triple-M. These small aluminum signs are seen frequently in Bladen and Sampson counties in North Carolina. Prestage is one of the state's large corporate pork producers, and Ronny Mathis is a contract farmer for the company. Mathis, and his father before him, had dedicated much of their farmland to tobacco, but he's recently added confinement hog houses.

MATHIS: Everybody's, you know, against tobacco these days. If the tobacco fails, or something happens to it, maybe we can you know survive now, you know.

LeBLANC: The hogs here were born and raised on other farms. They're fattened, or "finished," on the Mathis farm until they're ready for slaughter. Nearly 10,000 hogs are kept in what's called total confinement in 13 separate houses. They eat here, sleep here, and drop their waste here, which falls through the slatted floor to a pit below. Ronny Mathis.

MATHIS: You fill the bottom of the house with about 18, 12 to 18 inches of water, and then once a week we pull the plug and turn that water out into the lagoon, and then pump new water back into the house, what we call recharge it, once a week.

LeBLANC: The water, which is flushed from beneath the hog houses, carries with it a week's worth of waste from the pigs. It flows through pipes into one of 2 clay-lined lagoons, each of which holds the waste from about 5,000 hogs. The waste decomposes a few days before being sprayed on adjacent fields as fertilizer. It's an efficient way of farming. A lot of animals are raised on very little land and their abundant, nutrient-rich byproducts are used to grow needed crops. But the efficiency has come at a cost: to the environment and to the neighbors. A few years ago Roger Picket had a hog operation move into his neighborhood in Duplin County.

PICKET: Anytime I get an east-northeast wind, no wind, high humidity, about any of those conditions, all of a sudden you get a very sharp, distinct smell of urine and feces. I mean, hog urine has its own unique smell; it's sharp, it's very sharp. In 1993 I had 262 stink days.

LeBLANC: Neighbors also complain of health problems from the ammonia-laden hog waste odor. Common complaints are of eye and throat irritation. But research has also found that residents who are exposed to the smells are more depressed, tense, angry, fatigued, and confused. The problems come not from raising hogs per se, but from squeezing 10 and 12,000 animals on a very few acres.

LEWIS: That's not a farmer back there; he's not a farmer.

LeBLANC: Gail Lewis is an officer with the Alliance for a Responsible Swine Industry. A row of hog houses was built behind her residence in rural Pender County.

LEWIS: This is an industry? This is just like a factory back there; had a factory been going to come back there I would have been notified, I would have seen about it in the newspaper, I would have had a shot at talking against it or having some say-so. There would have been a permitting process. It's incredible. They're hiding under rules that were put in to protect Old MacDonald's Farm, and that is not Mr. MacDonald back there.

LeBLANC: Just how different these types of farms are became clear last summer with the incident at Ocean View Farm.

(Motor running. A man speaks: "This is a whole in the dike and it could be kind of a weak point from here on in....")

LeBLANC: On June 21st, 25 million gallons of waste from a 10,000 hog facility on Onslow County poured through a hole in the farm's lagoon dike and flowed over fields, roads, and into the tributaries of the new river.

(Vehicle sounds continue)

LeBLANC: Dump trucks filled with clay rolled in and repair on the dike began, but the damage was done. Within days thousands of fish were dead and health officials warned summer boaters, skiers, and swimmers to stay out of the water. Dr. Joanne Burkholder of North Carolina State University was among a handful of scientists who rushed to the scene.

BURKHOLDER: We found no dissolved oxygen even in the very top of the water column, and fish had died, begun to suffocate and were dying along the banks, and also were up in the bushes where the water had come through with a little more force, lying dead. The other problem that we noticed was extremely high counts of fecal coloform bacteria. The state standard is 200 colonies per 100 milliliters in surface waters in that area, and we were measuring as high as about 6-and-a-half million.

LeBLANC: The Oceanview spill only the first of a rash of accidents which ultimately prompted North Carolina governor Jim Hunt to order inspections of the state's near-4,000 chicken and hog lagoons. About half the inspections are done, and inspectors so far found 49 major waste violations. Some because of improper management, but some the result of intentional violations. Debbie Crane is with the Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources.

CRANE: And what we have seen has ranged from really horrible " in Pitt County we found a guy who, he put in a series of pipes that took it right down to a stream. That's the really bad one. We found in Green County a gentleman who basically had killed every tree within about a half mile of one side of his farm, because he was just letting it run over the edge of his lagoon and it was just, you couldn't tell where the lagoon began and the swamp began. They ran together.

ROSE: Anybody that willfully causes hog waste or pollution to go into our streams should not just be fined. They should be criminally prosecuted.

LeBLANC: Charlie Rose represents a significant portion of North Carolina's hog country in Congress.

ROSE: I've had developers come to me, people who develop subdivisions, and they would just, in horror, they would say if we allowed 500 gallons of human waste to leak out into a public creek or into a river, you all would put us under the jail.

LeBLANC: Rose is pushing Governor Hunt and the state legislature to tighten regulations on the hog industry. The governor has responded to the outcry caused by the string of lagoon failures by appointing a blue ribbon commission to study the industry and perhaps propose changes. The commission members have their work cut out for them. A recent series in the Raleigh News and Observer documented the influence of hog industry leaders on North Carolina politics. The owner of one of the largest pork producing companies spent years in the North Carolina legislature making state laws friendly to hog growers. Producers are currently exempt from some state sales taxes and all county zoning restrictions, and their liability for environmental offenses is limited. Since 1990, corporate pork producers and others directly related to the industry have contributed $440,000 to Governor Hunt and others in political power. Neither the Governor, nor former state legislator and hog producer Wendell Murphy, were available for interviews. But other key figures are proud to speak of where the industry is in North Carolina and how the state helped it to grow.

FAISON: I think North Carolina, basically, is I think, Governor Hunt, the whole government is business friendly.

LeBLANC: Sonny Faison is President of Caroll's Foods, another of North Carolina's biggest pork producers.

FAISON: But I think that they could show and you could prove in North Carolina, we are as environmentally sound as any state in the union, too. But we try to work, I think the government here tries to work with business, not against it as it does is some more liberal states.

LeBLANC: Faison acknowledges that there have been problems with some hog operations. But he says these have largely been confined to non-corporate facilities, a contention that is backed up by the state inspectors. And Faison says North Carolina is already addressing any lingering concerns. Even before this year's series of accidents and the appointment of the Blue Ribbon Commission, tighter regulations were being phased in. Faison says Caroll's Foods Farms are in compliance with the new 0200 regulations 2 years ahead of the deadline.

FAISON: We welcome the 0200 regulation. We think that the hog business needs them. We're going to operate under them. We feel that once this is done, that the disasters we've seen in the hog business, which, the word disaster, I'm even using it, but I call them minor spills. Once they will be avoided, that there will be no damage whatsoever, and that after a couple of years of operating like this on a very sound basis once again the public image will reverse, and all the hog industry will have the respect that's deserved if they operate properly.

LeBLANC: Faison's assurances, the new regulation, and Blue Ribbon Commission haven't satisfied critics. They say that even if all the lagoons are properly built and maintained and the farms operated according to guidelines, there are inherent problems in dealing with the sheer volume of hog waste being created on confinement farms. Hog farm neighbor Roger Picket.

PICKET: When you're putting out that large volume in an area, it can't soak it up. Average land around here, no way.

LeBLANC: Waste that isn't absorbed can still enter local waterways and groundwater supplies. In recent months, drinking wells have been found contaminated and over 10 million fish been killed in southeast North Carolina in recent months due, scientists suspect, to nutrient overloading from animal and human waste and fertilizer runoff.

(Motor running)

LeBLANC: Back at his farm, Ronny Mathis says a few bad apples in the business need to be dealt with. But he says, if America wants plenty of pork, they have to accept some unpleasant circumstances.

MATHIS: There's only a minute number of farmers, compared to the population of the United States, and we're feeding all of the United States. And we're doing it cheaper than any other country in the world. People eat cheaper here than they do anywhere in the world, and sometimes you have to, you know, accept things that " to each cheap, you might not normally, you know, want to do.

LeBLANC: And the industry continues to grow. Hogs outnumber people in North Carolina now. And in one area the ratio of pigs to people is 25 to 1. But the question of how many hogs is too many remains. North Carolina is now slaughtering 40,000 hogs a day, and another packing plant capable of slaughtering 30,000 more is looking to locate in the state. For Living on Earth, I'm Aileen LeBlanc in Wilmington, North Carolina.



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