We regularly get questions regarding the use of the lagoon and sprayfield system for manure management on our farms. These questions usually involve mention of the long-standing moratorium, the “Smithfield Agreement,” and claims that North Carolina hog farms should have updated their waste management system by now, as part of the moratorium. We hear this so often, that we thought we would share our answer to a reporter’s similar line of questioning to help people understand the issue:

First, there is nothing outdated about the lagoon and sprayfield system. It remains the most sustainable manner for us to manage our farms. Further, many municipalities still rely on this exact same method of wastewater treatment.

In 1997, the NC General Assembly imposed a moratorium on the expansion of the swine industry. In 2007, that moratorium became permanent ban. No permit can be issued for a new farm, or for the expansion of an existing farm, unless it meets five very strict environmental criteria. Meeting these standards is very expensive and is not economically feasible. In fact, only one farm has been issued an expansion permit since 1997. No brand-new farms have been permitted.

[The] reference to “environmentally superior technology” seems to be referring to the Smithfield Agreement which was signed in 2000 with then-Attorney General Mike Easley. Under the agreement, Smithfield committed $15 million for the development of “Environmentally Superior Technologies (ESTs),” and, if a technology was determined to meet technical, operational, and performance standards, and was economically feasible, that technology would be installed on company-owned farms.

Under the Agreement, an independently appointed “Designee” with appropriate expertise (specifically, Dr. C. M. Williams, Director of the North Carolina State University Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center) was the “the final authority” vested with “sole responsibility” for the “selection, installation, operation, and evaluation” of the technology alternatives, including determinations of economic feasibility.

Neither the Attorney General, nor Smithfield, nor third-party environmental groups, could unilaterally deem a technology to be an EST under the Agreement. Rather, the parties agreed that the determinations would be made exclusively by the Designee, with input from a peer review panel of experts. The peer review panel was comprised of a balanced representation of experienced researchers, regulators, agribusiness interests and environmental and community groups. The panel had full participation in the evaluation process and conducted semi-annual public meetings.

The Designee’s determination of economically feasible was based on an analysis by a peer review panel of economic experts and consideration of various economic factors, such as the impact that the adoption of alternative technologies may have on the competitiveness of the North Carolina pork industry, recognizing that hog production is important to North Carolina’s economy.

After years of analysis of nearly two dozen projects and millions of dollars invested, the Designee concluded in his Final Technology Determinations that there were no economically feasible alternative technologies for existing North Carolina hog farms that met technical, operational and performance standards.

Opponents of the swine industry frequently point to one particular system that was evaluated under the Agreement as the “solution” that the industry refuses to acknowledge. This system – Terra Blue (formerly called Super Soils) – was indeed the only standalone technology that met all the technical, operational and performance criteria listed in the Agreement. However, there are some significant constraints with the system that deserve mention:

Operation and Maintenance Challenges

  • Terra Blue relies on continuous electrical power for 24/7 operation, which was not factored into the economic analysis.
  • A loss of power in a major storm event would result in a system failure.
  • The process also requires use of a polymer which significantly adds to the cost of operating the system.
  • The system is difficult to operate and would require a farm to hire additional employees that have undergone specialized training and licensing, adding to the ongoing cost of the system.

Logistical Challenges

  • For the system to meet all the criteria of an environmentally superior technology, manure from the farm must be REMOVED FROM THE FARM SITE and transported to a separate off-site composting facility. Such a centralized system would create significant truck traffic. Further, the only centralized composting facility constructed for this purpose is no longer in operation.
  • A fertilizer product results from the compost but the nutrient content is not consistently reliable so can only be sold as a soil amendment. The marketplace would be quickly saturated with the product, thus making it difficult to sell at a cost that provides any return to the farmer.
  • Because of the necessary added polymer, the soil amendment/compost cannot be sold as “organic,” thus rendering it unable to be sold as a product with any significant value.

In the 2007 legislation that made the moratorium permanent, $20 million was appropriated to a Lagoon Conversion Fund to assist farmers who wished to convert their manure management systems to a system that met the environmental performance standards as required by law for a new farm. Numerous farmers applied to, and were accepted into, the program to receive assistance in converting to a new system. All of those applicants intended to put the Terra Blue/Super Soils system on their farms and in the end, each farmer declined the money, citing concerns that the operation and maintenance of the system would be too costly.

Two applicants did apply for and receive $500,000 grants each. One of those grants went toward construction of the centralized composting facility required for the Terra Blue/Super Soils system to work. That composting site is no longer operational and has not been for many years. The other grant recipient was the Loyd Ray Farm in Yadkinville which is a joint venture between Duke University, Duke Energy, and Google. At the center of this project is an in-ground anaerobic methane digester. Although a methane digester does not alone meet all of the standards required of a new farm, it is a significant step forward.

In the last 10 years, 24 farms have been issued permits to either cover an existing lagoon or construct an in-ground anaerobic digester, both for the purposes of utilizing the biogas produced at the farm. We are hoping that many more farmers will be implementing these systems on their farms. Curiously, several fringe environmental advocacy groups are opposing these efforts because they are not “good enough.”

Despite attempts of our opponents to stop progress, we are looking towards the future and remain committed to environmental stewardship and minimizing our impact on the world around us, while producing safe and affordable protein for our neighbors.