Hog Farms and the Environment: Alternatives to Lagoons

Published January 1, 2004

Editor’s note: In “Hog Farms and the Environment: an Investigative Series,” in the December 2003 issue of Environment & Climate News, Managing Editor James M. Taylor introduced the health and environmental concerns associated with hog farms–a type of livestock operation technically known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Management of animal waste is the most significant environmental challenge presented by large-scale hog farming. In this second installment in a three-part series, Taylor examines alternatives to the common practice of treating that waste in lagoons.

Brandon Howard, a 27-year-old alumnus of North Carolina State University, stands on a berm overlooking an eight-acre wetland in the middle of his hog farm. “Look at the ducks,” he says, pointing to a mother duck and several ducklings making their way through some cattails.

Wetlands like this one may well be the future of hog waste in North Carolina.

As far back as folks around here can remember, farmers have been disposing of animal waste from their hog farms by building barns with slatted floors. Waste seeps through the slats into a large underground pool of concentrated waste. The waste is then flushed through pipes into open-air lagoons elsewhere on the farm property. In the lagoons, much of the waste naturally decomposes, and what remains is sprayed onto fields as fertilizer.

Even under the best of conditions, nearby residents complain of the odor and sometimes assert that the waste in open-air lagoons is causing human health problems. When it rains, the lagoons may overflow, contaminating local groundwater. The scientific community is split on whether there is any connection between lagoons and human health.

Alternative Waste Treatment

Although lagoons may be more of a public relations problem for hog farms than a health hazard for farm neighbors, researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) are experimenting with several alternatives to lagoons. Currently, NCSU is studying a dozen alternatives, and another six experiments are close to implementation. Brandon Howard’s marsh is one of the alternatives currently being studied.

“In my situation, [the wetland project] does help,” Howard recently told the Raleigh News & Observer. “But what works for me might not work across the street. … If you manage a lagoon properly, no other system is going to work better or be cheaper to build.”

That, in a nutshell, is the problem: Lagoon alternatives are too costly for family farmers to install.

Howard accepted the offer to build a wetland on his property because it was paid for by NCSU. Without university funding, the wetland would have cost him $400,000, versus $60,000 to build a lagoon.

“We’re the guys who have got to implement whatever they come up with,” said Bundy Lane, chairman of the local Frontline Farmers environmental committee. “If it was easy to trump the thing [lagoon treatment], one of us farmers would’ve figured it out by now.”

“Ridiculously expensive, is how I describe it [the wetlands alternative]. You couldn’t turn enough pigs to justify the expense of the system,” added Howard.

That is, if you’re a family farmer.

Advantage of Corporate Farms

North Carolina in the nation’s second leading producer of hogs, yielding 9.6 million hogs per year. Nearly all of the hogs are raised on family farms, which work under contract for such packing companies as Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms.

Times may be changing, however. To reduce costs and offer a more competitive food product, the large packing companies are looking to raise their own hogs on large corporate farms. Cutting out the middle man and taking advantage of economies of scale, the packers will be able to sell pork to consumers at a lower price.

With more efficient hog production, corporate farms should be able to afford many of the expensive technologies being studied at NCSU and elsewhere to protect the environment and the health of farm-area residents. Consumers win by paying less for food; rural non-farmers win because their environment is better protected; and the packing companies win by streamlining their operations. But family farmers–who have tremendous political influence in North Carolina and other hog-producing states–lose.

As politicians debate the fate of hog farming in North Carolina and elsewhere across the nation, lagoons and the hog-farming industry are coming under increasing public scrutiny. The lagoon problem is weighing so heavily upon North Carolina residents that the state legislature passed a bill in April 2003 asserting the state can’t handle any more hogs until 2007–quite a bold statement considering the importance of hog farming to the state’s economy. The bill was signed into law on June 27 by Governor Michael Easley.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].