Last year, a few months after a Chinese company bought Smithfield Foods – the world’s largest producer of pork, and a major player in North Carolina’s second-in-the-nation hog farming industry – Mike Williams’ phone rang at N.C. State University.
The fast-rising Chinese demand for imported pork was calling, and it had some questions. Smithfield’s new owner, Shuanghui International Holdings, wanted Williams and three other senior NCSU scientists to come to China to talk pork. It was happy to foot the bill.
In January, when the scientists arrived in China, it was obvious to Williams that he was expected to explain the substantial waste-related hurdles to expanding pork production in North Carolina.
This wasn’t a big surprise. After all, Williams is one of the world’s top experts on hog waste processing, and has long been at the center of the complex role that the foul goo plays in North Carolina’s agriculture, science and politics. And Smithfield CEO Larry Pope had testified to Congress that the buyout would improve prospects for U.S. pork producers, who had faced domestic declines in consumption, by boosting exports to China.
Chinese hunger for imported pork is poised to explode, driven by a rising middle class and westernizing tastes. And Smithfield is a major player, with dozens of farms in North Carolina run by its Murphy-Brown subsidiary and two mall-sized pork processors, including one at Tar Heel that is the largest slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant in the world.
But growing more hogs in North Carolina isn’t simply a matter of building more farms and packing plants. After a series of spills and other pollution problems, in 1997 the state imposed a moratorium on new or expanded factory-style farms unless they use technology to sharply reduce pollutants in the hog waste.
Williams, who for decades has played a key role in the hunt for effective and cost-efficient treatment methods, knows the ins and outs of the technology and the moratorium better than anyone. As he gave his presentation, the Chinese audience hung on every word and took extensive notes.
“I just wish my students were that interested in class,” Williams said in a recent interview.
In the end, though, he thinks that the company officials were just gathering information before creating their long-term plan, and that they may decide to instead expand in other states – or countries – where Smithfield operates.
A ‘scraper’ experiment
For nearly two decades, a critical question about North Carolina hog farming has been whether a technology could be found that would both clean up the waste and do so at a cost that’s competitive with the current system of collecting it in lagoons and spraying it on fields. The lagoon method has allowed serious spills and lets the pollutant ammonia escape into the atmosphere.
The search for that better waste treatment system was funded mainly through a deal in 2000 known as the Smithfield Agreement between the state government and major pork producers. Among other things, the companies agreed to fund $17.1 million for research into better ways to treat waste, with Williams overseeing the search.
The money is long spent, and Williams identified several technologies that work environmentally and now must be used on any new or expanded farms. But the pork business is one in which every penny counts, and none of the methods have proven cheap enough to become widely used on existing farms.
Some of the elaborate systems offer ways to get produce income from the waste, including generating power by burning natural gas, pulling out nutrients for use as fertilizer or selling carbon offsets. The carbon offsets, though, never quite took off, and even with state requirements that power companies buy electricity generated from animal waste, that hasn’t proven to be lucrative enough to offset enough of the costs involved.
Now the free market is trying to close the gap. The Smithfield subsidiary Murphy-Brown recently installed mechanical hog waste “scrapers” under three of its huge hog barns on a Bladen County farm and has awarded NCSU researchers more than $500,000 to experiment with removing pollutants from that waste and making natural gas from it to burn for power generation.
Normally, the hogs stand on slats that make up the floor of the barns. Their waste falls through and collects on a floor underneath, and the hog farmers periodically wash it out with water. The effluent then flows into a lagoon and later is sprayed on fields.
The scrapers, though, just push the waste out from under the barns without diluting it. The scientists think that some of the proven new approaches for cutting pollution may work better with the scraped waste, in part because it essentially cuts out two steps: No water is added to wash out the waste, so no water has to be removed later to process it.
“We are attacking this with NCSU from the standpoint of trying to create additional economic returns from manure that make the use of technology feasible,” said Kraig Westerbeek, director of environmental compliance for Murphy-Brown. He was responding in an emailed statement to questions about the company’s goal with the project.
More processing plants?
The grant proposal written by the NCSU scientists and funded by Murphy-Brown says the main target is producing valuable byproducts from the waste that would make it cheaper to raise hogs. But it also notes that the potential benefits include reducing pollution.
“My goal as well as the goal I think of Murphy-Brown, at least the people I’ve been talking to there, is to increase value from the manure stream while preventing loss of nutrients and carbon, which frankly are lost to the air and water,” said John Classen, a scientist at NCSU who is leading the project. “We’re still protecting the environment, but that’s almost like a given, a constraint rather than a goal.”
Classen was deeply involved in the Smithfield Agreement-funded research projects that honed the new technologies, and he said the new effort will build on that work.
“This is very different from things we have done in the past, though, especially with the Smithfield Agreement,” he said. “Those were about evaluating specific technologies, relatively new technologies, and the goal was really just finding something else that was cheaper.”
The proposal isn’t clear about how much the project would focus on environmental issues, but the technologies that allow pulling salable nutrients and energy from animal waste are known for major reductions in pollutants.
The proposal also says nothing about expanding hog production, and Classen said his understanding is that the company’s focus is on the potential for generating more profits and keeping the farms’ costs competitive.
The new approach would clearly reduce pollution, perhaps even enough to allow companies that adopt it to grow more hogs. But even if it would perform that well and prove economical, it still might not have that effect because the moratorium isn’t the only serious limitation, said several people inside and outside the hog industry.
The other reason production is capped is that existing processing plants are essentially running at their limits. New processing plants require years of planning and can trigger lengthy environmental reviews.
In the long term, though, the projected increases in international demand seem too great for there not to be increases in production, said Henry Moore, a Sampson County farmer.
At some point, Moore said, it seems almost certain that demand will drive prices high enough that some of the alternative technologies for waste treatment become affordable, and more processing capacity will be found.
Even so, no matter how good the technology is at cleaning up the waste, Moore said bruising political battles with environmentalists over any plans for expanding the state’s hog population would be likely.
Maybe not, though. Gray Jernigan is a Raleigh-based lawyer and communications director for the Waterkeeper Alliance, a watchdog group that has repeatedly clashed with pork producers over pollution.
He said that he hadn’t heard of the new experiment with the scrapers, but that if it met the environmental standards now capping the hog population, that could be good.
“If they develop a technology that works and proves economically feasible, I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t retrofit existing farms to eliminate the lagoon and spray field systems, which would be a great thing,” he said. “And if it makes their business more profitable, well, that’s better for them and better for everybody.”
Ryke Longest, who worked on the Smithfield Agreement when he worked for the state attorney general’s office, is now an environmental law professor at Duke. He said that clearly the Chinese plan to expand, and North Carolina would likely be the first place they would think of.
If that proves unfeasible, they will do so in other states or other countries, such as Mexico, where Smithfield’s pork production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, has farms.
Longest said that he hadn’t heard about the Murphy-Brown project, but also said that it sounds promising.
“If they study the environmental requirements in the moratorium with the grant and it does those things, I’m all for it,” he said. “I’ve always believed you needed to make the water cleaner or poop more concentrated or both in order to deal with the waste. But right now, what comes out of the lagoon is too diluted to be really good fertilizer and too dirty to be good drinking water.”