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Farmers and Scientists Attack Smell of Hog Farming - 2004-06-09

The "Profile in Courage Awards," given each year in connection with the late President John F. Kennedy's birthday on May 29, honor men and women who have taken personal risks for the common good. Among this year's winners was Cindy Watson, a North Carolina lawmaker who worked to correct environmental and health problems caused by hog waste. The state's multi-billion dollar hog industry is the second largest in the nation. Ms. Watson was defeated in her re-election bid by a hog farmer, with financial backing from the industry. But, as VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, state efforts continue to balance the competing interests of environmental protection and health concerns with the economy of hog farming.

Sixteen years ago Joe Johnson bought a piece of the American dream in rural North Carolina.

"It's God's best. It is what America is made of and is made of today and back here just didn't get no better," he says.

A few years later the hogs moved in? 15,925 of the creatures, to be exact. Today a 115-hectare hog farm surrounds his slice of paradise.

"Can we do anything about it," Mr. Johnson asks. "No we can't. We can't get out here and work in our yard when we want to. We can't invite people over for a barbecue. We can't enjoy what we've got. The only difference between what we have got and a mansion on the hill is that it is ours. And it is what people look at and see. And I still see that mansion on the hill right there."

Joe Johnson says he, his wife and infant son are victims of the dramatic growth of the hog industry in rural North Carolina, which since the mid-1980s has nearly tripled to 10 million hogs.

But it wasn't until 1999, when lagoon waste pits overflowed after a devastating hurricane, that the state instituted stricter regulations on the farms. A moratorium was established on construction of new hog lagoons and laws were enacted to protect water, but nothing regulated the smell and smell was not something Joe Johnson had bargained for.

"There are so many different odors. You've got a [hog] lagoon. You've got a [hog] house. You've got a sprayfield. You have got stench, just so many different things," he notes. "On a calm day when it is so peaceful and you can hear everything back here the actual fans on the back ends of them houses right yonder will blow it right in your face. And, you can't just smell it, you can feel it."

A spokesman for the company that owns the farm was unavailable for an interview, but did say he was unaware of any complaints from neighbors since the company purchased the property in early 2004.

Still, an effort is underway to find new, less "fragrant" and less polluting methods to dispose of hog waste, part of a $17.3 million agreement brokered by the state and two of the largest hog producers in North Carolina.

Sixteen farm demonstration projects are included in the study. Mike Williams at North Carolina State University coordinates the initiative, which will evaluate the new technologies based on environmental performance and economic feasibility and issue a report in July.

Mike Willilams: I will point out that now that we are getting the first series of very comprehensive data reports on these systems, there is no question that some of these systems are performing very well.

Skirble: Dr. Williams, what is it going to take to get these technologies out of the test field and on to the farm?

Mike Williams: My primary concern is the cost. I do not think that we will see, nor do I feel that it is reasonable to anticipate that new and innovative technology like the technologies we have under the umbrella of this initiative will cost equal to or less than the existing lagoon sprayfield system. I feel that they will cost more. Someone will have to pay for that if these systems are implemented. Relative to your question of what will it take? I think it will take a major initiative by State as well as federal government perhaps at least to implement some type of incentive for these systems to be incorporated. Does that mean subsidy? I don't know. Does it mean tax breaks? Reasonable implementation schedules? I don't know. Meanwhile Joe Johnson must wait and cope.

"Are we fighting a losing battle? In the end for us as individuals, no we are not because our battle is in the fight. Our battle is [over] when we roll over and quit and don't continue to stand up for what we believe in," Mr. Johnson said.

Leading the battle is an unlikely general. Don Webb is a former hog farmer turned citizen advocate who heads the Association for the Responsible Use of Swine. He says what Joe Johnson and others are up against are the powers of a multi-billion dollar industry. He like Mr. Johnson is tired of waiting for change.

"For 14 years now we warned our [state] legislators," he said. "We warned our federal legislators. We warned our health departments. We warned that us Americans, us middle class Americans that pay the debts, fight the wars and die for this country, we went to them and told them and they refused to listen to us because we were poor middle class Americans. They didn't listen to us because they don't care. If they truly cared they would do something about it."

The solution, according to North Carolina State University researcher Mike Williams, is to bring all parties to the table.

"The companies, the farmers, the regulatory agencies and yes, even the neighbors, and then let's work out an implementation phase that will get the technologies on to the farm that would be in my opinion in the best interest of everyone involved," he suggests.

Their success in doing that may eventually bring some relief to Joe Johnson and his family. Don Webb with the Association for the Responsible Use of Swine says what farmers do with the information from the technology study is what counts in the long run.