Weathering the storm

Features - Hazardous Waste

North Carolina hog farmers turn waste into resources in the face of Hurricane Florence.

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February 13, 2019

Photos provided by Waterkeeper Alliance

Weathering several hurricanes in her career helped Janet Archer, a hog farmer in Goldsboro, North Carolina, prepare for Hurricane Florence.

Archer built her hog farm in Wayne County, North Carolina, in 1992, which means she’s survived a few deadly storms. Before Hurricane Florence hit in September 2018, there was Hurricane Fran in 1996, Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Each time, heavy rains caused a river to flow between her home and farm, stranding Archer, her husband, Jack, and farmhands for days. But according to Archer, living through the storms has taught her and other hog farmers in the area valuable lessons about preserving their properties, which helped minimize the amount of waste and loss this past fall.

Seeing the devastation

Hurricane Florence dumped nearly 9 trillion gallons of water on North Carolina. The National Weather Service reported as much as 40 inches of rainfall along some parts of the coast. When all was said and done, the storm claimed five lives and left 1 million residents without power.

In the eastern part of North Carolina, significant rainfall hit Wayne County, which has a flourishing agricultural and livestock presence. Archer says Hurricane Florence brought 27 inches of rain to her farm alone, but the entire pork industry felt its effects. “Everything was challenged,” she says. “Not just livestock.”

Over the course of four days, 10 swine lagoons full of pig waste flooded, 33 overtopped and 6 suffered structural damage throughout the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Equality (DEQ).

The storm resulted in the loss of 5,500 hogs. But when framed in relation to the 2,000-plus hog farms that operate in the state, Archer says the loss was “minimal,” in part because farmers were more prepared thanks to their familiarity with storm preparation.

“Every loss is heartbreaking,” Archer says. “We had a generator fail. We’ve lost some animals. There was a barn roof that collapsed. We had much worse in Hurricane Floyd because we were not as prepared. One of the reasons farms did so well this time is because we learned some hard lessons from past hurricanes.”

Precautionary planning

On the state level, North Carolina preemptively closed some hog farms that reside in low-lying, flood-prone areas to mitigate damage. But on a local level, Archer says the community had to take it upon itself to plan and strategize before the storm.

“We’ve been through a lot of storms,” Archer says. “You always have to prepare. You always have to understand what’s going on. The advantage of a hurricane is you know it’s coming.”

By the time Hurricane Florence made landfall in mid-September, area hog farmers had already moved more than 20,000 pigs to higher, safer ground.

Days before the storm, Archer filled feed carts to the brim. She stocked up on enough fuel for the generator to power the farm for a week, and she made sure there was enough food and water for everyone on the farm.

“Somebody has to live on the farm with the animals,” Archer says. “We have a pull-out couch on the farm. Whoever stays has hot coffee, a hot shower and a bed. No cell service, but they can survive.”

Archer’s farm uses a manure lagoon as a waste management system. Despite their negative reputation in the national media, lagoons are a central part of sustainability at hog farms. With a 19-inch border around the edge in case of flooding, the lagoons hold and treat waste. Naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria in the lagoons breaks down solid waste into fertilizer, which farmers use to grow crops.

“Sustainability is a buzzword now, but it has been how we’ve survived for centuries,” Archer says. “Agriculture has a very low margin, and income has declined for 12 consecutive years, so we’re always looking for ways to turn a waste product into something to use. Even with manure, it may be defined as waste, but to us, it’s a nutrient.”

Archer says there are two “action points” hog farmers use to manage the lagoons before hurricanes. One way to prevent flooding is to drain the lagoon days before heavy rainfall is expected, she says. Hog farmers also keep extensive records on the lagoons along with soil samples to monitor phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen levels, which are inspected by the state.

“There can’t be any runoff,” Archer says. “It can’t leak through the soil. Municipalities can dump raw sewage in a creek or river and pay a fine. We have a zero-discharge requirement. Nothing we produce can leave our farm.”

When there is an issue with a lagoon, the DEQ investigates and then follows up to ensure the farm falls back into compliance with its permit, which is specific to each farm.

After the storm, farmers are responsible for their own cleanup. When her neighborhood experiences mass flooding and animal mortalities, Archer says the community pulls its resources together to clear debris and roadways so feed trucks and residents have access.

“All the farms stay in contact with each other to see who needs what,” Archer says. “We had caravans to help people get feed and supplies to areas. Farmers have equipment that general homeowners don’t have, and everyone works together.”

Waste to resources

Over the years, the pork industry has found solutions and created plans for mass animal mortalities after hurricanes.

Mark Rice, the director of North Carolina State University’s Animal and Poultry Management Center, says the center was founded in the 1990s to explore alternative uses of byproducts from animal waste and mortalities following natural disasters.

The purpose was to create value from the byproducts “that could help the farm income, so you weren’t just disposing of the mortality,” Rice says. “You could actually take that, process it and create something that can be used in another industry.”

Once approved by the state, the center started using hog and poultry carcasses as compost and blending it with soybeans to produce carp feed for the commercial fishing industry, Rice says.

In the early 2000s, the center also started to explore alternative uses for swine waste and treatment technologies, such as those used in manure lagoons.

“The focus was to offset costs and add value to that waste stream,” Rice says.

Because of the center’s leading research, hog farms today are able to convert captured methane gas from waste into renewable energy.

Smithfield Foods, one of the country’s largest meat-processing companies based in Smithfield, Virginia, announced plans in October 2018 to implement “manure-to-energy” projects across 90 percent of its hog spaces in North Carolina and Utah. As part of evolving sustainability efforts, Smithfield plans on converting existing anaerobic treatment lagoons to “new covered digesters to capture biogas,” which will be transported to central processing facilities and converted into renewable natural gas in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah.

Protecting pork

Archer has been a hog farmer for more than 40 years. In fact, she met her husband on a pig farm. Together, they’ve raised hogs in four different countries and four different states.

Archer is originally from upper Michigan, where farmers can’t rely on treatment lagoons to manage waste because of the colder temperatures. She says in the Midwest, farmers can’t manage and treat waste outside away from the animals, and she’s grateful to be in a more temperate climate that permits it.

Despite the benefits of anaerobic treatment lagoons, North Carolina’s pork industry faced scrutiny from media organizations after Hurricane Florence, in part because of the environmental impacts linked to overflowing lagoons.

Andy Curliss, CEO at the North Carolina Pork Council, which advocates on behalf of the state’s pork industry, recently wrote a blog about the real “threat” of Hurricane Florence, pointing to misleading headlines about the damage caused by these waste sources.

Curliss says hog farms are inevitably going to flood when affected by hurricanes, but he echoes Archer by highlighting the industry’s “significant steps” taken since Hurricane Floyd to lessen environmental impacts, including closing farms and lagoons in most flood-prone areas.

After Hurricane Florence, the DEQ’s incident tracker painted a real picture of the storm’s damage. While the department reported 1,957 incidents on farms across the state, only six needed “urgent action.” Farmers at the state’s 2,000 hog farms, meanwhile, took action to resolve prospective issues before they became critical.

In the aftermath of the storm, hog farmers in Wayne County eventually returned to their daily operations. Despite the unpredictability of when the next hurricane might impact the area, Archer says she is sure the community will be prepared.

“Our job is taking care of those animals,” Archer says. “It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing.”

The author is a digital editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at kmaile@gie.net.