A brief internal review of my blog entries this evening revealed I’ve left out one or two important stops. In late March with much effort and logistical maneuvering, I had scheduled a flight over North Carolina’s eastern plains to observe the impact of the hog growing industry on the Neuse and Cape Fear Watershed areas. It turns out I never got around to writing about the flight itself, or highlighting the organization that helped get me up in the air. ‘Better late than never’ certainly applies in this case. Plus, I think this entry will be both a pleasure to write and to read. So off we go:
When I was planning my adventure through the American South earlier this winter, I realized a few difficulties I was bound to face as a road-going traveler. Traveling by car meant that most of my sites would need to be accessible by personal vehicle. For most sites on my itinerary this was no problem: parking lots are plentiful in the south, afterall. But some of the places I wanted to visit and poke around a little bit — take a few photos, do some field sketches, trample around in my rubber boots, etc. — happened to be on private property. Two such sites were mining areas in Kentucky and hog producing regions of Eastern North Carolina.
I’d heard some stories about people getting shot at in the South for mistakenly trespassing across private property, so I was sufficiently shaken enough to brainstorm a different approach. I did a little online research one night and came across some great aerial photos of both of these site types – coal mining and hog farming. The perspective from a small aircraft is different from anything you can find on the ground. You can see relationships from the air that are not perceived with your two feet on the ground. Right then and there I got in my mind that I needed to find a way to get in the air. With surprisingly little effort, I identified an organization that could help me do exactly that: Southwings.
Southwings motto of “conservation through aviation” translates to a lot of logistical work and relationship building to pair volunteer pilots with parties doing research, surveying, reconnaissance, photography, among other things. Southwings’ local partner organizations – like National Wildlife Federation, Gulf Restoration Network, and other conservancy based nonprofits – typically “sponsor” the flight and can invite academics, journalists, government leaders, etc. to come along. They use the unique opportunity to spread the word about a particular issue or controversy impacting the South’s diverse ecosystems and landscapes. Flights address all kinds of issues: logging, mining, habitat loss, watershed pollution, oil spills, unsustainable development patterns.
I dropped by Southwings’ Asheville, NC headquarters on a cold, blustery afternoon in early March to ask about what I’d need to do to set up a flight to look at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in eastern North Carolina. I received enthusiastic assistance from Caroline Douglas, the organization’s Conservation Program Director. She suggested I contact Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Larry Baldwin to ask if he’d like to sponsor the flight. I filled out some forms and left their office with Larry’s cell phone number, excited about the idea of this aerial adventure and what it would bring to my research.
Our flight was finally scheduled for March 18 after more than a few urgent calls and emails to get everyone on board. But it was set. Bad weather came in that day (of course) and we reassembled to meet the following day, March 19. I met pilot Jack Lynch early that morning in the parking lot of the Burlington Hardee’s fast food restaurant. I followed him into the small airport and parked my car, all the while getting a little anxious as this was only my second time flying in a small plane (first time was a few months earlier – when I flew in Kauai). It turns out Jack’s plane was a *little* bit nicer than the plane I flew on in Kauai. Jack owns a stunning state-of-the-art single prop plane manufactured by Lancair Columbia out of Bend, Oregon. I immediately felt a little safer after observing the care Jack took in prepping the plane for our flight. We took off with no problems, and headed to New Bern, NC to pick up Larry. We would take off and land a total of 6 times that day!
L-R: Lower Neuse Riverkeeper Larry Baldwin, Rachel Edmonds, Southwings Pilot Jack Lynch
Now for the hog farming part of this story. A *brief* history is important to understand what things I was going to see on the Southwings’ flight. Hog farming has been HUGE business in NC ever since the tobacco industry bit the dust in the early 1990s. Farmers who’d traditionally specialized in tobacco needed to find new ways to support themselves. Some began raising hogs, chickens, and turkeys in small-scale family operations. By the end of the decade, some of the largest pork producers in the world (Smithfield, Premium Standard, etc.) figured out ways to vertically integrate the industry and deliver enormous profits to the corporate coffers. They used their influence at state and national levels to push out independent farmers and later sign them on as contractors. Animals would be farrowed and fattened by contract farmers in barns on their family land, but the pigs would remain corporate property. The farmers would be paid a fee for raising the animals, but they would be required to purchase feed and other supplies (hormones, medications, antibiotics) from their corporate “partners”. Similarly, contract farmers would assume liability and be responsible for the environmental impact of raising hogs they don’t even own. Many signed on, eager to make money the only way that seemed possible.
Problems regularly arose as contract hog operations expanded across many counties in Eastern North Carolina. Heavy seasonal rain and hurricanes tended to overflow hog lagoons that capture excrement and liquid waste from adjacent pig barns. These pig manure filled lagoons are what I planned to observe on my Southwings flight. Essentially open cesspools, hog lagoons are a major threat to water resources in North Carolina. Sadly, there are no regulations that govern the decision where to site lagoons on property with streams or wetland areas. No fool-proof technology for their construction or management is mandated to prevent contamination of shared water resources or wildlife habitat. Since neighbors tend to complain about visibility of hog farming infrastructure, lagoons are usually built at the rear portions of a property where watershed areas are present. While out of sight, they aren’t out of mind; lagoon waste spread over farm crops eventually reaches groundwater resources that everyone in the community shares. It’s a no-win situation.
The flight was an amazing eye-opener and it certainly clarified some issues for me in terms of understanding the relationship of the hog industry to the landscape. Because the technical aspects of the problem are vast and evolving, simplifying it with a few key graphics is the way I would like to make it more accessible to a lay audience. I developed this graphic below the other night based on an actual aerial image I found with Google Earth. Compare the diagram with some of the photos I have included from the flight and try to identify potential hazards.
Conceptual diagram of hog production facilities in Eastern North Carolina
Each of these hog barns holds approximately 2500 pigs. The lagoons here abutting a drainage way hold the waste of up to 20,000 hogs.
Liquid waste is transferred from the hog barns to lagoon through an underground piping system.
What does the future say about NC’s hog industry and its troubled agricultural coastal plain? I am hopeful that technology will bring us solutions, coupled with some old fashioned regulatory reform. Agriculture extension offices and universities are studying new models and practical methods for addressing the waste issue. Some claim to have solved the problem, but corporate pork interests have not promised the capital needed to pay for equipment and training for contract farmers. So far just lip service. The day will come when it will not make economic sense for Smithfield and others to ignore the problem. While vertical integration rules today, it will surely fail if local water resources become unreliable. Water is the common denominator for all of us. Industry should resolve to protect local water in the interest of its own longevity. Just sayin’.