Tar Heel of the Week

Lillington hog farmer works to lessen the environmental harm

CorrespondentJune 15, 2013 

Tom Butler, 72 of Butler Farms in Lillington, N.C., is a leader in an effort to convert the methane from hog lagoons into energy. He has converted his row farm with crops to an 8,000 pig farm. He is able to turn the methane into electricity, which he sells back to the grid. Farming has been in his family since the late 1800's, although he has been working with pigs for the past 17 years.

COREY LOWENSTEIN — clowenst@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • William Thomas Butler

    Born: June 11, 1941, Lillington

    Residence: Lillington

    Career: Owner, Butler Farms

    Education: B.S., general science, East Carolina University

    Family: Wife, Kay; son, Will

    Fun Fact: Butler and his son also maintain a contractor business focusing on the installation of doors and hardware for industrial clients. He says the business “supports my farm habit.”

— Tom Butler started raising hogs 17 years ago, pushed into a new venture by the decline in tobacco, which his family had grown for generations in Harnett County.

The hogs made his family a more secure living, but they also left behind a distasteful byproduct – two pools of hog waste covering 3.5 acres that emit a mix of greenhouse gases, including methane and carbon dioxide.

Not long after Butler got into the business, the impacts of the lagoons on water and air quality became more widely known, and he started seeking ways to lessen them.

Since then, he has used a mix of grants, incentives and his own money to cover his lagoons, lessening their environmental impact and using the methane created by the waste to generate electricity.

He has also become an eager proponent of such methods, trying to make them profitable enough for other farms to follow his example and working on the state and national levels to secure incentives for farms that deal with hog waste in environmentally friendly ways.

His advocacy brought him to the General Assembly earlier this year, where he spoke out against a bill that would have eliminated a state requirement that utility companies purchase energy from renewable sources, including solar energy and methane from animal waste.

The latest version of the bill retains requirements for purchasing energy from farmers. That bill is still being considered by committees in both houses.

Butler says his push to make his industry adopt cleaner methods will continue.

“We had no idea of the impact that we’d have on the environment when we started,” says Butler, 72. “I thought, ‘What have I gotten into here?’ That’s one reason I’ve been motivated to try to fix that.”

He is one of only a half dozen hog farmers in the state to invest in such methods, says Mike Aitken, a UNC water quality researcher who has conducted research on Butler’s farm – and one of the most passionate advocates for change.

“Tom is a very forward-thinking man,” says Aitken. “He has a strong sense of doing the right thing and helping to solve a problem rather than contributing to it.”

Comfortable with science

The Butler family has farmed that plot of land outside Lillington where Butler currently lives since the 1800s, growing row crops such as corn and cotton, and eventually relying largely on tobacco.

Butler says his parents insisted he go to college so that he would have options outside of farming, though he never seriously considered a career off the farm. He started the hog operation with his brother, who recently retired from the business, and hopes that his son will eventually take it over.

“It’s just in our blood,” he says.

He earned his high school diploma from the local K-12 school, which he jokes gave him “a good seventh-grade education.” There were 16 members of his graduating class.

“Things were different back then,” he says. “So few people even went to college. We could read and we could write and we were ready to face the world.”

He had to take algebra at summer school before entering East Carolina University, and says he spent much of his time there on academic probation. But he excelled in his science classes, particularly biology.

He returned to the farm, but he says his college experience was transformative; his knowledge of science has made him more comfortable with the scientific aspects of converting animal waste, for instance.

And his college experience also widened his view of the world, which has been useful as he traverses the country talking to scientists, policymakers and environmentalists about new ways to deal with hog waste.

“I learned about a whole different world from Harnett County by meeting people from all over the world and all over the United States,” he says.

Last week, he met with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency in Indiana to discuss its incentive program for hog and poultry farmers to create energy.

Later this month, he will speak at a meeting of the state’s river keepers, a group that harbors serious concerns over the impact of hog farms on the state’s water quality.

‘The right thing to do’

Butler says his first concern about the hog lagoons was simple: They smelled bad, and he knew it bothered his neighbors, even if most were too polite to complain.

But for many years he found little to do about it, even as news reports made it more clear that the effects of hog waste went far beyond such cosmetic concerns.

In 2007, Butler took advantage of a push to capture carbon in exchange for credits, commonly known as cap and trade. He covered his lagoons in 2008 with the help of a California company that worked with carbon credits, but the price of carbon soon took a steep drop.

So he turned his attention to another gas trapped under those covers: methane. It took him years to cobble together several grants and some of his own money to buy a generator that converts methane into electricity

Currently, the farm produces electricity up to 14 hours a day, for a total of about 300,000 kilowatt hours a year, enough to power about 20 average-size houses for a year. Butler hopes to get it running 24 hours a day by improving the system and using food as well as animal waste.

But he concedes that his efforts so far have produced only a meager revenue stream. And they would have reaped him steep losses in the absence of federal and state incentives.

He wants to pioneer a system that will help small farmers like himself turn a profit by covering their lagoons.

“That’s our goal now,” he says, “to show the industry that it can be done, and to show them how.”

His 130-acre farm has two lagoons that hold about 10 million gallons of waste. Statewide, there are about 4,000 such lagoons, and nearly all are uncovered.

The tightly sealed covers keep rainwater out, allowing up to 50 inches a rain of year to enter the watershed as clean water instead of filling a lagoon.

Farmers can make money selling the methane. And their neighbors don’t have to put up with the overpowering odor of the lagoons.

“It’s the right thing to do, and it’s a waste not to,” he says. “Lagoon covers are a win-win.”

Butler says his fellow farmers are leery of increased regulation – that if the covers prove successful on a large scale, the government will mandate them for all farms.

But mainly, he says, they fear the costs associated with such a large change in the way they do business.

Aitken says that covering lagoons to generate energy isn’t going to remove their impact on the environment. The ammonia produced by hog lagoons, for instance, would continue to be a problem even if all of them were covered.

“It’s not a panacea,” he says. “But it cuts down on emissions and chips away at our reliance on fossil fuels. It’s one of those things that’s inherently good.”

Staff writer Daniel Blustein contributed.

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