The hoop houses are laid with thick mats of straw, which serve as a bedding and a sponge for the animals’ waste. Photo by Gabe Rivin

The squealing and grunting grew louder. The pigs stomped the ground with their hooves and, as dust rose through the air, banged their snouts against a metal grating.

As the rattling and shrieks grew more insistent, Mildred Betancourth stepped aside.

“I need to feed them,” she said. Moments later, a yellowish meal came streaming to the ground from a series of Y-shaped pipes hanging from above. “They’re always hungry.”

The pigs grew quiet. With their faces dipped toward the cold floor, they began to munch, content for now. The tour continued.

Betancourth was leading the way through a series of large hoop houses, each filled with pigs being raised for pork. The pigs varied in age, color, size and spotting patterns, and by all outward appearances they acted conventionally, with their squeals and snout-driven foraging.

Yet their living conditions were anything but conventional.

The five hoop houses are part-research facility, part-demonstration for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, a research center run by three partners: N.C. State University, N.C. Agricultural & Technical State University and the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The goal of the 142-animal operation is to show how hogs can be raised without antibiotics in a way that grants them enough space to roam – and that keeps their waste out of open-air lagoons.

Managing hog waste isn’t just a regular chore for farmers like Betancourth, who oversees the swine project. Hogs’ feces and urine, in fact, have wide-reaching political ramifications in North Carolina, the U.S.’s second-largest pork producer, behind Iowa.

North Carolina is home to some 8.8 million pigs, most of which live on farms in the eastern portion of the state. To raise such a large number of pigs, many farms rely on concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

These facilities raise animals efficiently and economically. Yet with such large numbers of animals, they can also produce an abundant amount of feces and urine.

Many large-scale farms store this waste in open-air lagoons or in pits and then spray the treated waste on nearby fields. But this practice has raised researchers’ and residents’ concerns.

Mildred Betancourth greets a pig that has recently given birth. Photo by Gabe Rivin
Mildred Betancourth greets a pig that has recently given birth. Photo by Gabe Rivin

For one, researchers have found that lagoon and spray systems can cause increases in harmful airborne pollutants, as well as spikes in asthma symptoms among nearby residents. Residents living near hog farms have also complained of persistent malodors.

And in an ongoing legal complaint, environmentalists have claimed that the state’s hog regulations are racially discriminatory, in that they allow farms to operate with waste-control technology that puts nearby minorities’ health at risk.

Researchers have also raised concerns about the widespread use of antibiotics in CAFOs, which they say have the potential to develop antibiotic-resistant pathogens that could harm humans.

CAFOs may be prevalent among North Carolina’s pork industry. But in Goldsboro, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems is looking to show that there’s another way to produce good pork and fill the growing demand for smaller-scale meat production.

A broad focus

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems was launched in 1994, a time when North Carolinians found themselves reading news stories about polluted state rivers and their connection to agriculture, according to Nancy Creamer, the director of the center.

Facing pressure from sustainable-agriculture groups, deans from agricultural colleges at N.C. State and N.C. A&T, as well as the state’s agricultural commissioner, brought together a committee to look for solutions. The committee included sustainable-agriculture advocates, conventional farmers and researchers.

After deliberating, the committee had one clear recommendation: the development of a research center focused on sustainable agriculture, Creamer said.

Soon the Center for Environmental Farming Systems was born.

What began as an idea in the mid-’90s has since grown into a large, distinctive research center. Alongside its hog research, the center runs a roughly 200-acre research farm. The center has also helped create a statewide supply chain for small-scale meat producers and runs workshops for farmers, among other activities.

In its research, the center covers a wide terrain.

“Our plots [in Clayton] are five-acre plots and are multi-disciplinary,” said Andy Meier, superintendent of the Goldsboro farm, “which means faculty from animal science, faculty from soil science, water quality, biology, entomology, crop science.”

The center’s researchers closely study the environmental footprint of their projects – whether they’re growing crops with conventional techniques or raising cattle on open grasslands.

Their research looks at “what happens in the soil, what happens in the air, what happens in the water over time,” Meier said.

A warm bed to rest on

These kinds of considerations are significant for the state’s hog industry.

With heightened attention placed on the nation’s meat industry via documentaries and books, consumers have grown increasingly interested in buying meat that they view as sustainably produced. Whether the concern stems from animal welfare or antibiotics, consumers have shown an interest in small-scale animal farms.

But at the farm in Goldsboro, raising these kinds of animals – antibiotic free, plenty of space to roam – requires close attention to the animals, not to mention significant human labor.

Take the straw, which is laid out in thick mats throughout the hoop houses, and which serves several purposes.

“It adds a bedding for them, it’s more comfortable, it helps give them heat in this season,” Betancourth said.

“One thing you’ll notice about straw,” Meier added, “is that it’s very absorbent.”

Which is a key feature: The straw is used to soak up the pigs’ urine and feces. It’s how the farmers manage the animals’ waste, and it serves as an alternative to a lagoon system. Eventually, it can also be used as a fertilizer for crops.

But managing this waste takes time and labor, since Betancourth has to regularly clean out the fouled straw.

And those two elements – time and labor – are no small portion of a product’s overall cost.

Piglets at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems hoop house. The project raises antibiotic-free pigs in large hoop houses. Photo by Gabe Rivin
Piglets at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems hoop house. The project raises antibiotic-free pigs in large hoop houses. Photo by Gabe Rivin

‘All of us’

North Carolina’s conventional pork farmers often don’t practice this kind of labor-intensive waste management. And in using lagoons, the industry has received its share of critical media coverage.

But the industry’s trade group defended its farmers’ practices.

“North Carolina hog farmers work hard to protect our environment,” Ann Edmondson, a spokeswoman for the N.C. Pork Council, wrote in an email. “Our farmers carefully follow state regulations and manage their farms – no matter how big or small – in a responsible way.”

And Douglas Meckes, North Carolina’s state veterinarian, in a December interview with North Carolina Health News, disputed the concerns about antibiotic use in animals.

“I understand and appreciate the concern about … resistance and the implications for all of us,” he said. “But it’s my understanding there’s never been a direct link between the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture and antibiotic resistance in humans.”

Recently, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disagreed with Meckes, asserting that one in five resistant infections are caused by antibiotic use in animals.

Meier admitted that the model used at their farm has its drawbacks. For one, it’s less efficient than a conventional, concentrated farm. This raises the cost of its meat.

But competing by price with conventional farms isn’t the point. Rather, the center’s swine operations demonstrate a viable model for small-scale farms, those that might serve a farmer’s market, he said.

“This is an alternative to the conventional system, which raises high-quality pork,” Meier said. “For folks that are concerned about that kind of production system, this is an alternative.”

Nor could this smaller-scale model produce enough pork to meet the country’s demands, he added.

Meier acknowledged the critical coverage of the conventional pork industry, as well as the public’s growing demand for meat produced on a smaller scale. But he argued against polarized views of hog farming.

“It’s not ‘us or them,’” he said. “I think it’s ‘all of us.’”

This story is republished with permission from North Carolina Health News.

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