Monday, June 24, 2024

Animal farms on the Cape Fear River: do they bear watching?

WILMINGTON — North Carolina, and specifically the southeastern region of the state, is one of the leading producers of meat for a considerable portion of the world.

Although the state is the second largest producer of pork, it has the highest density of swine farms in the country, with over 2,000 industrial farm operations currently in production.

Around 10,000,000 animals support the business, with the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world being housed in Tar Heel, N.C.

North Carolina is the third largest producer of poultry product in the US, which, according to the North Carolina Poultry Federation, is the largest agricultural industry in the state. (Port City Daily file photo)
North Carolina is the third largest producer of poultry product in the US, which, according to the North Carolina Poultry Federation, is the largest agricultural industry in the state. (Port City Daily file photo)

In 2013, Smithfield Foods, which owned a majority of North Carolina farms, was purchased by Hong Kong based Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd., now WH Holdings, becoming the largest pork producer in the world.

North Carolina is the third largest producer of poultry product in the United States, which, according to the North Carolina Poultry Federation, is the largest agricultural industry in the state.

Between these two industries, just under 200,000 people are employed, generating billions of dollars in revenue each year. Although an integral part of our economy, these farms are responsible for a considerable amount of controversy, and are blamed by some for large amounts of pollution in the Cape Fear and Neuse Rivers.

Some would like to see changes in the way the agricultural industry operates, but it is sheltered by North Carolina’s politicians intent on keeping the business booming.

A brief history of Industrial Farming in the U.S.

In the United States, farming has always been a way of life. According to a report by the Pew Commission in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, subsistence farming was the nation’s primary occupation well into the 1800s.

This changed in the 1840s, with the invention of Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper, a huge step forward for the farming industry. This device allowed for the mechanization of other farm tools, like cream separators, manure spreaders and poultry incubators.

After the invention of the locomotive, and later the refrigerated rail car, farmers and meat producers were able to ship livestock and meat across the country, allowing the industry to boom and prosper, the report notes.

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In the 1930s, the development of the mechanized swine slaughterhouses put America at the forefront of the worlds meat production.

In the second half of the 20th Century, selective breeding and specially formulated feed have increased the growth rate and output of livestock, allowing the animals to grow larger, and harvested quickly.

The report notes that in the past two decades, demand has caused a significant change in the way this industry operates. The writers state that, “The current trend in animal agriculture is to grow more in less space, use cost-efficient feed, and replace labor with technology to the extent possible. This trend toward consolidation, simplification, and specialization is consistent with many sectors of the American industrial economy.

“The diversified, independent, family-owned farms of 40 years ago that produced a variety of crops and a few animals are disappearing as an economic entity, replaced by much larger, and often highly leveraged, farm factories,” the report states.

Essentially, the processing of livestock on a massive scale, in Controlled Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO).

The concerns about CAFOs

The issue with these operations is the proximity of these farms to people’s homes, as well as some of the state’s largest watersheds.

According to a 2014 study by the University of North Carolina, these types of farms “house animals in confinement, store their feces and urine in open pits, and apply the waste to surrounding fields.”

“Air pollutants from the routine operation of confinement houses, cesspools, and waste sprayers affect nearby neighborhoods where they cause disruption of activities of daily living, stress, anxiety, mucous membrane irritation, respiratory conditions, reduced lung function, and acute blood pressure elevation,” the study states. “Prior studies showed that this industry disproportionately impacts people of color in NC, mostly African Americans.”

In May, HB467, the so-called Agricultural and Forestry nuisance bill was passed by the state, even after being vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper.

The law would have limited the amount of damages the people who are negatively impacted by these types of farms can seek in court, allowing these farms, in the words of Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette, to “have hog (expletive) sprayed on your kids.”

Neuse River after Hurricane Matthew flooded concentrated animal feeding operations. North Carolina has experienced two 500 year floods in the past 20 years, causing pollution problems more frequently. (Port City Daily Photo/COURTESY AMERICAN RIVERS)
Neuse River after Hurricane Matthew flooded concentrated animal feeding operations. North Carolina has experienced two 500 year floods in the past 20 years, causing pollution problems more frequently. (Port City Daily Photo / COURTESY AMERICAN RIVERS)

Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council applauded the measure in a press release saying, “Farmers across our state are grateful that the Senate has acted to override the Gov. Cooper veto to provide them more certainty and protection from predatory lawyers. The votes this week in the House and Senate, by members of both political parties, sent a clear message that lawmakers support agriculture and its unique role in providing food to families.”

According to the 2017 American Rivers report, the Cape Fear and Neuse Rivers placed at number seven out of 10 on a list of the nation’s most endangered rivers, due to pollution runoff from these farms.

Water Street looking north toward Market Street during Hurricane Matthew. (Port City Daily file photo)
Water Street looking north toward Market Street along the Cape Fear River during Hurricane Matthew. (Port City Daily file photo/HANNAH LEYVA)

In the past 20 years, North Carolina has experienced two 500-year floods. One from Hurricane Matthew, and the other from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Animal waste from these CAFO facilities is often stored in waste ponds. So, when storms bring large amounts of rainfall, like 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, the rivers overflow their banks, washing animal waste — potentially tons of it — downstream.

“Wilmington gets most of its water from the Cape Fear, the main stem for that water is located behind Lock and Dam Number 1, near East Acadia,” Burdette said. “The idea behind this was that, no matter how high the saltwater rises, that water source is safe.”

But that’s not entirely the case when it comes to pollution. According to Burdette, two of the Cape Fear’s tributaries, the Northeast Cape Fear and the Black River, have the highest concentration of CAFO farms in the world.

According to a study by the EWG and The Waterkeeper alliance, Pender County alone has 96 animal feeding operations, producing over 289,000,000 gallons of wet waste per year.

Brunswick County operates 15 animal feeding operations, resulting in over 66,000,000 gallons of wet waste produced per year. Data from New Hanover County was not readily available.

When the animal waste from these farms washes downstream, it can settle in lock ponds, which in turn allows harmful algae to bloom.

Not only can these blooms make people sick, they also negatively impact the environment, potentially causing fish die offs due to depleted oxygen levels in the water, and shellfish farming bans when the toxins eventually reach the ocean.

Although organizations like the North Carolina Pork Council are transparent about efforts to make these farms ecologically friendly, some feel not enough is being done.

The environmental groups, as well as livestock organizations like the pork council, pushed for more funding to be included in the state budget this year for a voluntary buyout program to enable these farms to be relocated out of the floodplains of these rivers. That budget was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Cooper in June.

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