Dollars and scents

N.C.’s hog industry should shift away from an inadequate waste-handling system.

December 2, 2012 

Over the past couple of decades, North Carolina has come to accept its standing as the nation’s No. 2 hog producing state. It’s no longer news that over 9 million people share this fair land with almost as many hogs. But we’ve never fully come to grips with high-volume hog farming as it’s practiced here. We’ve never acted as if we really grasped the risks the industry poses to our natural environment, or the toll it takes on its neighbors.

Sure, we decry the smell and the threat of pollution, but we’ve seemingly learned to live with them – or at least those of us who live comfortably outside the hog-raising zone have done so.

So there was little if any exaggeration, nor surprise, in the main front-page headline in last Sunday’s N&O: “After 12 years of research, hog-waste disposal still stinks.”

Yes, there are isolated examples of growers and others trying out innovative improvements. The promising Smithfield Agreement of 2000 remains in effect. It promotes research and holds out hope that when better methods of waste treatment are certified, they’ll be widely adopted.

Yet the state, for whatever reason, has been unable to force the pace of change sufficiently, certainly not enough to break away from near-universal use of the open lagoon and sprayfield model that’s been business as usual in the flat fields of Eastern North Carolina since the great boom in hog raising of the 1980s and ’90s.

Part of the problem lies in the Smithfield Agreement itself, with its bottom-line inclusion of “economically feasible” as a key factor in evaluating new technologies. Nothing wrong with that, except economic feasibility has come to mean that anything notably more costly to the industry than the current method of waste disposal can’t pass the test. And, short of simply letting hog waste run wild, the current method is about the lowest-cost method there is. On a dollars and cents basis it’s hard to beat.

That’s a narrow, limiting view, however, and it ignores key facts.

Costs, in full

One is that industrial-scale hog farming imposes costs on the state, its people and the environment, and those costs should be part of the equation.

The Smithfield agreement itself, in setting out criteria for improved waste-handling systems, suggests what those costs are or can be: discharge of animal waste to surface waters and groundwater through direct discharge, seepage or runoff; atmospheric emissions of ammonia; odor detectable beyond the boundaries of the swine farm; release of disease-transmitting vectors and airborne pathogens; nutrient and heavy metal contamination of soil and groundwater.

To those ill-effects we might add that methane escaping from hog-waste lagoons is a principal “greenhouse gas.”

A second fact is that methods do exist for treating hog waste to higher standards than the open lagoon and sprayfield system. Last Sunday’s story detailed some of them.

In general, they’re either integrated systems that use waste byproducts to assist in growing marketable crops or creating other products, and/or they resemble smaller versions of municipal sewage plants. Methane can be collected and burned, short-circuiting its role in climate change. New hog farms in North Carolina are already required to use improved methods.

Hog country

Finally, North Carolina, by virtue of its central location along the East Coast, its vast swaths of available agricultural land east of Interstate 95 and its moderate climate, possesses natural advantages that give the pork sector here an edge in production volume and cost control. Those advantages would mitigate the expense of moving to more advanced waste-handling systems.

According to N&O reporter Jay Price’s survey of the Smithfield Agreement landscape a dozen years after its inception, the costs of retrofitting better hog-waste solutions are getting close to a point where the agreement’s monitor, scientist Mike Williams of N.C. State University, could certify them as meeting its criteria. He’s expected to issue a report to the Clean Water Management Trust Fund in February on one of them.

Yet, Williams told Price, “It always comes back to the cost.”

The cost calculation, however, should include all the costs, not just those to the growers and others in the state’s $2.5 billion a year hog-raising sector. Public health and potential pollution must weigh in the balance. So should methane’s role in climate change.

North Carolina can’t live with lagoons and sprayfields forever. It’s time to make a break toward more advanced techniques and a more accommodating hog industry.

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