What You Aren’t Being Told About “Hog Farm Pollution”

If you drive down many Eastern North Carolina roads, you may see a billboard that looks like this:

Raise A Stink

They are doing just what they say–raising a stink, but it is a stench much worse than any pig poop could possibly smell. These billboards are part of a campaign started by the Waterkeeper Alliance organization to blame hog farmers for polluting local waterways. Although their aim is to make a positive difference in the community, this organization is causing harm, defaming an industry, and do not have their facts straight.

It is important that not just the other side of the story is told, but that facts are put out there, so that the public can be informed. Pollution is a serious issue that should not be taken lightly; however, there are a few things that the Waterkeeper Alliance isn’t telling you–things you should know to get the whole picture.

Who is the Waterkeeper Alliance?

The Waterkeeper Alliance organization is an international group represented by 240 local groups on 6 continents. They are environmentalists who focus on maintaining and promoting clean waterways. They have been active in campaigns against dairy farmers in New York and hog farmers in North Carolina along with various other campaigns. Last year (2014), they, along with their local subsidiary, The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation filed an intent to sue against a NC farm, that gave the farm 90 days to complete a list of demands or else the organization would file suit against the farm. Although the farm worked with the organization to meet demands, the Waterkeeper Alliance has launched the billboard campaign against all NC hog farmers.

What claims have been made by the Waterkeper Alliance?

The Waterkeeper Alliance makes many claims that can be found on their website. Here are a few to note:

  • Waterkeeper Alliance seeks to expose the fact that foreign-owned corporations are reaping the profits made possible by the antiquated lagoon and sprayfield system of hog waste disposal, while placing an unfair burden on local contract growers.
  • Many people “are unaware of how much environmental damage and human pain and suffering these industrial swine operations are inflicting on people and their environment,” Rick Dove, North Carolina CAFO manager for Waterkeeper Alliance
  • “For too long, factory farms in North Carolina have been disproportionately located in minority communities where residents are forced to endure the smell, water quality impacts and the embarrassment associated with the facilities operating near their homes. Through this campaign and multiple other fronts, we’re working toward the day when people living near these operations are granted their right to swimmable, drinkable and fishable waterways,” Marc Yaggi, executive director at Waterkeeper Alliance
  • “Using so-called lagoons and sprayfields to dispose of hog waste is an outhouse method that must be replaced. A number of systems that will do away with lagoons and sprayfields have been tested and approved for implementation. It is time to put an end to this problem and the best place to start is by educating the public about what is happening to their water, air and communities.” Rick Dove,North Carolina CAFO manager for Waterkeeper Alliance

There is a lot packed into these claims, so let’s dissect them and look at what the hog farm scene looks like.

Hog Farm Fast Facts:

  • First, let’s make sure we don’t call large hog farms factories. Even though they are on a much larger scale, they are still a farm, and should be called as such. The majority of these farms are still family operated too.
  • The hog farming chain can be a little confusing with its many parts. Here is a chart that will hopefully help.pig integrator
  • North Carolina is the second largest producer of hogs in the U.S. and contributes $2.9 billion to the economy
  • Large hog farms keep pig waste in large pits called lagoons.
  • No new lagoons are allowed to be built
  • Hog waste is used as fertilizer for crops.

What are the Waterkeeper Alliance not telling you?

The Waterkeeper Alliance makes it sound like pig farmers have absolutely no concern for the environment, and they are irresponsible with the waste from the farms. This is the farthest from the truth. Farmers are some of the most avid hunters and fishermen out there. Why would they want to pollute the very waters that provide that recreation? In addition, many of their families live within the vicinity of these farms. Would farmers purposely pollute and cause damage to their own family? I don’t think so.

Even if farmers didn’t care (which they most certainly do) they are required by law to adhere to strict regulations as to when, where, and how they can deposit and manage the waste in the hog lagoons. These regulations are put in place by the Department of Water Quality and are monitored throughout the year. Hog waste is never allowed to be dumped into waterways; however, human waste is permitted to be dumped in the rivers once it has been treated. Although the majority of pollutants have been removed from the waste, the volume put in streams is still high and the pollutant mass can still be high in streams (NCSU).

The Waterkeeper Alliance demands a waste water treatment facility to deal with the hog waste in a more environmentally friendly way; however, human waste water treatment facilities are not perfect either. According to the EPA, there are over 22,000- 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows (SSO’s) that occur each year due to blockages, line breaks, sewer defects that allow storm water and groundwater to overload the system, lapses in sewer system operation and maintenance, power failures, inadequate sewer design and vandalism. The only thing a hog waste water treatment facility is going to do is cost the pork industry millions of dollars, driving the cost of bacon and porkchops through the roof. According to Feeding America, North Carolina is ranked in the top 10 states for food insecurity, and higher pork prices will only drive food insecurity up.

The Waterkeeper Alliance draws on various studies that show the effect of hog farms and hog waste on the surrounding community; however, these studies often show inconclusive data and rely on speculation. Yet, the Waterkeeper Alliance states them as fact. Beyond any of this, though, are the facts that they are hiding about the regulations that hog farmers have to abide by:

  • Lagoons are required to have substantial grass planted around its banks to prevent erosion.
  • Crops meant for direct human consumption, are not allowed to have hog waste sprayed on them as fertilizer.
  • Lagoons must be kept under a certain level at all times to prevent overflows into waterways.
  • Rain is stressful to a hog farmer as it increases the levels of the lagoons and soaks the fields to where they cannot be sprayed on. With no where for the rising lagoon water to be sprayed, hog farmers often times have to hire tanks to haul it away. They have even flown men in from other states to help in the effort of managing the lagoons during a heavy rain season.
  • Hog farmers have to take lagoon samples of the waste to make sure the nitrogen and phosphorus levels are appropriate within 30 days of spraying on fields.
  • If hog farmers know a neighbor is having a party or an outdoor function, they try not to spray as to disturb them.
  • The majority of farms are off of a dirt path away from most homes. By law, they must be 1,500 feet from a residence and 2,500 feet from a school, church, hospital, or park.
  • Farms are inspected twice a year by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). According to the NC Pork Council, during 2000, 98% of the 6,000 inspections of NC’s 2,500 hog farms were found to have no direct discharges of organic waste water to the surface waters of the state and 94% found no signs of over-application to fields.
  • If there happens to be a hog waste spill in the rivers, the farm is required to report it and could be fined.
  • Spills are typically caused by equipment malfunctions.

The organization claims that there are better innovative ways to deal with hog waste out there, but hog farms are stuck on the antiquated ways of spraying on fields. Many hog farms are collaborating with scientists and innovators on various ways to improve hog waste management. Many of these innovations are in a trial period or are so expensive that the cost outweighs any benefit. The goal is to provide affordable pork to the public and  do so in an ethical manner. Farmers are being ethical and careful in how they manage hog waste.

The Waterkeeper Alliance may also tell you that the Neuse is one of the most polluted rivers and fish are at an all time low; however, the Neuse River basin does not boast the most amount of hog farms. The Caper Fear River Basin has the most hog farms. If hog farms were the cause of the river pollution, then why is the river basin with the most concentrated hog farms, not the most polluted? It doesn’t add up.

Cape Fear
http://scorecard.goodguide.com/env-releases/aw/nc-riverbasin.tcl?image_id=030300&huc6=030300

What Now?

While the Waterkeeper Alliance is not calling for an end to large pig farms, they are saying some nasty things that does not tell the whole story by any means. It is ok for them or anyone to ask questions and even challenge certain practices. It is important that hog farmers look at ways to constantly improve, but the current billboard campaign does not ask questions and challenges in an unhealthy manner. The Waterkeepr Alliance is suggesting that hog farmers are unethical in their environmental practices, but the Waterkeepr Alliance is not being ethical in their efforts by defaming an industry, causing the potential for increased pork prices, and not telling the whole story.

If you see these billboards remember that there is another side to those signs. They look something like this:

billboars

We shouldn’t have to have Ag Awareness Weeks–Living in an ag illiterate society

This week was Ag Awareness Week at school (NC State University). In the common area of the brickyard, where a lot of students congregate, were booths and displays set up spreading awareness about agriculture. There were live animals, tractors, and ag students available to answer questions. It thrills me that this event takes place. What a great way to educate and advocate for agriculture!

Photo by Terri Leith http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/agcomm/news-center/perspectives/panelists-talk-sustainable-agriculture-at-ag-awareness-week-forum/

 

But, I have an issue with Ag Awareness Week. There shouldn’t be a need for awareness about ag. Let me say that again. There should NOT be a need for ag awareness. Sure, less than 2 % of the population are farmers, but those are not the only ones who should know about ag.

Why is it that in today’s society, school systems require kids to take mandatory classes in English, math, science, art, and history, but not agriculture when they partake in it 3 times a day at the table? Elementary and beyond, even in universities, agriculture is not among the forefront subjects of education. This is truly bizarre to me if you consider the prevalence that agriculture plays in our day to day lives, community, and economy. Think about this:

  • Food, regardless of type, is needed for human survival. That food comes from some type of agriculture (large or small).
  • America’s net farm income for last year, 2014, was $108 billion. (source)
  • 22 million people work in agriculture related fields. (source)
  • There are over 200 available careers in the agriculture industry. (source)

Aside from the fact that food comes into play in our day to day lives, the influence that agriculture has on our economy and the job market is pretty astounding, and yet, we are not doing a sufficient job in our education system of educating our kids about these opportunities nor its impact. We are failing our kids in the ag literacy front. They may be able to read, but they can’t read ag.

Yeah, sure, schools have classes available for students to take about agriculture. We have ag teachers in schools and whole ag degrees in college, but it is optional for kids. English, math, history, art, and science all have special teachers for their respective subjects, and you can major in them in college, but they are also mandatory at some level in our kids’ education. The previous subjects like math and English are so valuable to a child’s proper education because they will utilize most of it on a day to day basis. So, why, if agriculture is enjoyed at least 3 times a day, is it not mandatory for a child to learn about where their food comes from and how it is made? In my opinion, this is a serious oversight and tragedy that our society is experiencing.

kids

Because so many students go through elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college without gaining much of an understanding about the agriculture industry, they are missing out on valuable job opportunities, career paths, and the foundations of making educated decisions about what they eat. They never go through life appreciating what farmers do to feed a growing population. People grow up either not thinking about where the food they are consuming comes from, or developing misconceptions about farming in their heads. If and when they are finally exposed to real agriculture and farming, they are often shocked, and this has led to a lot of controversy.

Even worse, is that it is a cycle. Adults are ag illiterate and do not understand it, and then go and pass that on to their children a lot of the time. I have helped with Farm Animal Days in the past and observed mothers tell their kids to look at the puppy I was holding. In reality, I was holding a baby goat. The sad truth was they didn’t know the difference even with a college degree. Potentially more heartbreaking, was watching parents snatch their children’s hands from touching some animals or even dirt, to prevent germs. Animals can get pretty gross sometimes, but they aren’t toxic. I have had an individual in a restaurant ask what I had in the trailer in the parking lot. When we told her it was a pig, she wanted to know if it was big or small. We said it was a smaller pig, weighing around 230 pounds or so. This was a shock to her. People don’t realize pigs get twice that size.

My point in all this is that our society is generally illiterate. I’m not talking about the kind where you can’t read. I’m talking about the kind where you can’t read an anti-farming article and be able to pick out some of the discrepancies. I’m talking about the kind of illiterate that cannot distinguish a goat from a puppy or know how big a pig can get. An illiteracy that does not realize what contributions agriculture makes on the economy and the job market, and that there are opportunities besides being a farmer that are available in the agriculture industry. Beyond even that, many kids are missing out on valuable character building that farming provides such as responsibility, hard work, and ethics. This isn’t to say they don’t receive these character building traits from other places, but farming provides another avenue for it.

Because of this illiteracy, we are forced to hold Ag Awareness Week and recognize Ag Day that promotes more ag literacy. Guys, we shouldn’t have to have these special weeks and days to create awareness. It should already be there. Education should recognize agriculture as a subject that holds equal importance to art, math, science, and English. After all, everyone needs food. Until that happens, though, I say rock on to Ag Awareness Week. Keep up the good fight in educating, and maybe one day, we will live in an ag literate society.

ag literacy

Bridging the Gap from Farmer to Consumer

Only 2% of the population live on farms. That means that 98% of people do not know the ins and outs of farming and what all it entails. This happened thanks to the Industrial Revolution that drew people to urban areas. Around the same time that people were migrating to the cities and away from the farm, the media greatly diminished their coverage of farming and agriculture. Not only was the public physically removed from the farm, but they were mentally removed. An “out of sight, out of mind” situation became prevalent.As far as the population was concerned, farms still looked like grandpa’s red barn often seen in literature. In fact, though, farms look vastly different and have modernized just as the rest of the world has.

These major factors have created a huge gap between the consumer and farmer. With this gap comes questions from consumers. They want to know how their food is being grown and what is being put in their bodies. They want to know why farms don’t look like what they thought, and often times ask hard questions about farm practices. Answers are desired, and rightfully so. They deserve to know what they are consuming. There is a gap that needs to be bridged; however, this is easier said than done. An attempt must be made though.

bridging the gap

Bridging the gap is not achieved by throwing information out there. That is not good enough. A conversation must be started. This is not any one group’s responsibility. Both consumers and farmers alike, must do their part. Consumers have a responsibility to ask questions. It is completely ok, to ask what is going on behind the food being eaten. Likewise, farmers should also be asking questions. Questions like “Where are you getting your information? What concerns do you have? How can I help you feel better about this?” can be helpful in situating exactly where the consumer is and what they are thinking. Sometimes they may not know what to ask or how to ask it. From questions, a conversation can ensue.

Conversations are of no use if they are done in a negative way that only widens the gap. The goal is to bridge it. It is important for both sides to approach the dialogue in a positive manner. The public should have an open mind. There are a lot of voices out there and a lot of opposing information. Researching issues and gathering information from reputable sources on both ends of the spectrum is crucial. The beauty of our society here is we have the freedom to make a choice. So when engaging in these conversations, it is crucial to come in with an open mind and an open heart. By heart, I mean a sense of compassion and respect. Aggressive behavior is not going to move the conversation forward, rather it is going to stop it in its tracks. Consumers also need to realize that what they learn, may not be what they expected. Farming isn’t the same, and that’s ok. The important thing is to talk about those changes and gain understanding about the why behind those changes.

As farmers, it is important that we are also respectful and gentle with our dialogue. So many times I have seen conversations, especially online, go south because of the negativity of the language. “Get your facts straight!” and “Don’t be ignorant!” are not words that promote a conversation. They are just our emotions and frustrations shining through. I know that as farmers ,we are passionate about what we do. I know I am. A lot of information out there that bashes farmers is hurtful and feels like a personal attack on our way of life, and our knee-jerk reaction is to scream and rant. This will get us no where. We need to take that passion and show everyone that we care and are passionate about what we do. We need to remember that it isn’t the public’s fault that they may not understand. It is simply something that has happened with time. The simple truth, is they aren’t around it like we are. When posts that are anti-agriculture surface, ignore them. Don’t share those posts and say things like “How can people say such horrid things. It is all lies!” Not only are you providing more views for that negative article, but you are not enticing a positive conversation. Share positive posts that highlight what wonderful people farmers are or cover tough topics, but are well written and not filled with rants. Equally important is the process of listening. If we do not take the time to listen, then we are shooting blindly. It is not about a persuasive argument (although, there are persuasive tactics in it), it is a conversation, and conversations require just as much listening (for both parties) as it does talking.

Bridging the gap doesn’t always mean standing on the same side of the gap. It is perfectly alright to agree to disagree. In fact, the likelihood of completely agreeing is slim to none. We should all learn to be able to say, “you know, I don’t think we are going to agree on this subject. Thankfully, we have the freedom and choice to be unique.” The bridge is still there. The option to learn more and have a conversation is still there, we may just stand on opposite ends of the gap. So long as we don’t throw things at each other, it can be a healthy relationship. It is also important to note that it does no good to argue with activists. They are just as staunch in their beliefs as we are our’s. We aren’t going to change their minds. Agreeing to disagree is the only way to keep some sort of peace, despite how tense it may be. Even if the opposing side does not agree to disagree, we do not have to be pulled into the unwinnable fight.

Between the worlds of urban and rural is a gap. This gap is filled with misunderstandings, confusion, and questions. Conversation is the bridge. Not everyone may come across the bridge, but at least it is there. All it takes is positive words…

“Hi, I heard you were a farmer. Can I ask you a few questions?”

“Absolutely! I’d love to share my passion with you. What would you like to know?”

Together we can bridge this gap. Will you join?

bridgeSource:

http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/demographics.html


A huge thank you to The Center for Food Integrity for the Engage workshop they held that I was recently able to attend. They helped me to articulate these thoughts that were jumbled in my brain.

A World Without Ag Wednesdays: Confetti

Introducing “A World Without Ag Wednesdays”, where I highlight something that we wouldn’t have if it weren’t for agriculture. Be sure to check every Wednesday for a new feature!

This week’s feature is confetti. Quite appropriate, since in just a few hours, over a ton of it will pour down on hoards of people in Times Square as the clock strikes midnight. You may have asked questions like, “How do they clean up all that mess?” (the answer to that is over 150 people work to clean it up by 8am the next morning), or thought, “Wow! The rainbow of paper sure is pretty!” Have you ever thought, though, “What would New Year’s Eve look like without confetti?”

confetti

Well, if it wasn’t for agriculture, we wouldn’t have confetti or the beautiful display on New Year’s Eve (maybe the cleanup crews would like that). You see, confetti is made from paper, and as many of us well know, paper comes from trees. Yes, trees are a part of agriculture too. In fact, it has its own fancy name, called silviculture. Silviculture comes from the word silvics–the knowledge of how trees grow, reproduce,  respond to changes in the environment, seeding requirements, and location (WVU Extension Service). Pretty neat, huh?

Here are some fun statistics for you:

  • 751.2 million acres of United States soil is forest land
  • 60% of United States forest land is privately owned
  • The United States is one of the leading producers and consumers of forest products
  • United States forest product industry produces $200 billion in sales every year and employs around one million people.

 

For me, the whole timber industry hits close to home. My grandfather recently harvested his pine tree plot. He planted those trees when I was born. 20 years later, they were cut down, and the land is now being replanted with pecan trees. Who knows, maybe those pines are part of the confetti falling from Times Square.

Pine trees purposefully planted to later harvest for products like confetti!
Pine trees purposefully planted to later harvest for products like confetti!

 

What used to be pines, is now being planted with pecan trees
What used to be pines, will soon be planted with pecan trees

So, when you count down to 2015 and watch all that confetti fall, remember to thank agriculture. Without ag, there wouldn’t be New Year’s confetti.

 

Sources:

http://www.wvu.edu/~agexten/forestry/silvics.htm

http://www.epa.gov/agriculture/forestry.html 

http://www.loggers.com/timber_facts.htm

http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2014/01/01/after-party-in-times-square-comes-the-cleanup/