Pork industry highlights modern methods

Clinton Hog Farm
Hogs in one of farmer Josh Coombs' finishing houses on his farm in Clinton, NC. Image: Robert Clark, North State Journal

CLINTON — As nuisance lawsuits are waged against the hog farming industry in federal court, media were invited to tour a Sampson County farm to see for themselves how hog houses and waste lagoons operate. The tour was organized by Feed the Dialogue NC and the NC Pork Council.

The Clinton farm is operated by Josh Coombs, a local firefighter whose family has owned the land for more than a century, in cooperation with Prestage Farms, which contracts for the pigs. The Dec. 11 tour was split into two sections — one looking at a finishing house, where hogs grow until they are ready to be harvested, and the other of the hog waste lagoon where the waste is collected.

“We want people to understand what we do, and we depend on accurate media for that. So, that’s really the main purpose of this,” said Andy Curliss, CEO of the NC Pork Council, before the tour.

The media were driven from a nearby fire station to the site in two vans and then gathered in front of a row of hog houses. Coombs’ neighbors, Michelle and Adam Radford, who live on the property, were made available for questions.

“We’ve enjoyed living out here,” Michelle Radford said. “The farm doesn’t bother us.”

“Every once in a while, we’ll get a whiff of something, but it’s nothing bad,” Adam Radford said. “Actually, call me weird, but I think it’s kind of pleasant. It’s country. And very rarely will we see a truck pass through.”

Coombs said to avoid creating odors that his neighbors may detect, they don’t apply waste to the field on windy days.

“We pick a good day that’s sunny when the wind is calm to apply our animal waste,” Coombs said. “Plus, we try to keep our roads in good condition so when trucks come, they’re not banging and causing a lot of noise.”

Before the house that the Radfords live in was on the property, the original house had burned down in 1915 or 1920. Coombs said his family members then moved into the barn where they lived above the livestock.

The old methods of farming were hard on the people, according to Coombs, but also on the animals. He said now that the animals are inside hog houses, they can stay away from rain, heat, cold, predators and other natural problems. It also allows the farmers to isolate and control the waste, which is better for the environment.

Those on the tour were given protective coveralls, hairnets, gloves and shoe coverings before entering the facility.

Dr. Emily Byers, swine veterinarian for Prestage Farms, said the protections were for the animals and people.

“Our main goal is that we don’t want to bring anything to our pigs that are here, and we don’t want to take anything that could potentially be here somewhere else,” said Byers.

She said they put on the full protective suits every time they go into a barn.

“Fresh ones, clean ones, every time,” she added. “And before I leave here today, I’ll shower as well.”

According to Byers, disease control is an important part of the operation of modern hog farms, but pigs still do get sick from time to time. If pigs get sick, medicines like antibiotics may be used, but there is strict control over them. A withdrawal period is applied before the animal can be harvested until there are no longer detectable levels in the meat.

Once everyone was in the appropriate gear, the tour moved to one of the four equal-sized hog houses in a row along the road. Inside, there was a climate control system to keep the hogs at a comfortable temperature, automatic water and food dispensers, and other modern touches. The pens are designed so each pig has 7½  to 8 feet of space. Waste goes into slats in the floor and is collected underneath.

Journalists were also given a tour of the waste collecting process at the onsite lagoon.

James “Cookie” Lamb, an environmental specialist for Prestage Farms, led the tour. Lamb said after 25 years and four major hurricanes, the water has never overtopped from the lagoon. They lower the levels during rainier seasons, especially in late summer and early fall, to prevent it from rising during storms. The water from the lagoon is recycled to flush out the hog waste from under the houses.

“Once a week, he’ll pull the plug, which is similar to flushing a commode, and the water will flow out from under the pit into the lagoon,” Lamb said.

Eight-inch-wide pipes come out of each hog house and drop the waste, which he calls “nutrients,” into the 9-foot-deep lagoon. The solids then drop to the bottom. The lagoon is made of either impermeable clay or a synthetic liner in a process closely regulated by the state.

The waste is then sprayed over fields as a fertilizer. On Coombs’ farm, he sprays the liquid across his Bermuda grass field. According to Lamb, a typical lagoon has a pound or pound and a half of nitrogen per thousand gallons of water, which has to be calculated like “balancing your checkbook.” The farmer has to take into account every rainfall, every time they spray, every gallon of waste added to the lagoon in paperwork submitted to regulators.

“We keep five pounds of paperwork for every pound of pork.” commented another Prestage Farms worker. She said that despite the complications of the modern methods of hog farming, the “shared risk and shared resources” of operations like Prestage “is why we’re able to stay in business.’

Asked if it is profitable, Coombs said, “It is. As long as the regulations don’t continue to try to put us out of business. It provides an income for my family.”

One major regulation concerning the pork industry is the moratorium on building new hog farms. According to Marlowe Vaughn, executive director of Feed the Dialogue NC, the moratorium prevents farmers from building new sites and expanding old ones.

Curliss said the moratorium came about because in 1995, it rained every day in June, and after one lagoon failed, the entire hog industry came under scrutiny.

“There was a lot of concern that this might be a systemic problem with how to handle these lagoons, and there was a state-run investigation that looked into that,” Curliss said.

Curliss said that after the report — even though he doesn’t believe the issue was systemic — politics took over and banned the building of new hog farms in the state.

But asked if the NC Pork Council wants to end this moratorium, Curliss said, “It’s really not on our agenda. It’s not a part of any serious conversation.”