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Since Smithfield opened the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse on the banks of the Cape Fear River in Bladen County 30 years ago, two counties in Eastern NC have become infamous for having more hogs than people by a factor of 40 to 1. But even in the country’s most densely populated swine counties, hog is no longer the boss of industrial farming. Poultry is king by a country mile and getting bigger by the day.
The Tar Heel state raises over 500 million chickens and turkeys a year, compared with 9 million hogs. North Carolina is the second highest poultry producer in the country after Georgia and poultry is the state’s top agricultural industry.
An Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Waterkeepers Alliance (WKA) investigation found that, between 2008 and 2016, there were about 60 new industrial chicken farms each year. That number doubled to 120 between 2016 and 2018. A year ago, there were about 4,800 factory poultry farms in the state. Now, that number stands at around 5,700. That growth happened with virtually no oversight.
And because poultry is largely unregulated, state legislators aren’t allowed to disclose the location of the operations. Even the environmental regulators don’t know where most of the farms are located.
For decades, Robeson County had largely escaped the industrial hog farming industry of its neighbors. But, according to EWG, since 2012, the estimated number of chickens and turkeys there has increased by about 24 million. The expansion hasn’t stopped in eastern NC, however. Industrial poultry farms are cropping up in every part of the state including Chatham, Union, Gaston, Catawba, Lenoir, Iredell, Guilford and Cleveland counties.
Most facilities are “deemed permitted” and considered in compliance even though it has never been granted an individual permit to build or operate. The animals are kept in uniform rows of slender steel-roofed barns. Hogs are jammed in by the hundreds, while poultry are caged in barns by groups of 30,000 to 35,000.
I went up in a small plane with Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper to get a good look at what's hidden in the woods and behind the towering rows of corn. At first it's hard to tell a poultry operation from a swine one until you realize that poultry farms don't have lagoons, the Olympic-sized swimming pools of hot pink hog manure that gets sprayed on crops as fertilizer.
Poultry produce dry litter that gets scooped up and stacked into huge hay-like piles to be used as crop fertilizer later on. Dry litter is high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause toxic algal blooms and water contamination if excess runoff gets into rivers, lakes, and drinking water.
“The rule is you can’t leave dry litter uncovered for more than 15 days, because every time it rains all that stuff is just running off,” Burdette explains, pointing to the piles of litter at the edge of a poultry farm. “We’ve seen piles left uncovered for months and months, so they totally disregard those rules. But even those tarps don’t really stop anything. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound.”
Last spring, Democrats in the General Assembly introduced legislation to require commercial chicken farms to submit waste management plans to disclose how they handle their litter, but the bill went nowhere. That’s hardly surprising given that even an earlier bill that proposed studying the environmental and human health impacts of dry-litter met with stiff opposition.
Sen. Tom McInnis (R-Richmond County) objected saying, “I like fried chicken on Sunday.”
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