Duplin County, N.C. stinks. And no wonder. Its human population is just under 50,000 people, but it is also home to 2.2 million [PDF] of North Carolina’s 10 million hogs [PDF]. Last week, I went on a bus tour of Duplin County as a part of the Politics of Food Conference to see how confined animal feeding operations impact rural communities. It was not pretty.

Our guides on this tour were Dr. Sacoby Wilson, an assistant research professor at the University of South Carolina, and Devon Hall, a community activist for Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help. Each was quite knowledgeable about how CAFOs affect the health of a community, both from medical and economic standpoints. What I heard from them combined with what I saw and smelled renewed my resolve to know the farmer who raises the meat I eat.

Lakes of liquid manure

Hall started off by telling us that Duplin County has the highest concentration of hog CAFOs in the state. All but two of the county’s 522 hog farms are white-owned, even though African Americans make up 29 percent of the population. Each farm has between 3,000 and 12,000 animals, and some quick back-of-the-envelope math showed me that the average hog population is just over 4,200 per CAFO. At an average of 190 gallons of manure per pig during its stay on the farm, we’re talking about a whole lot of poop.

As Hall spoke, we drove by an open manure lagoon. Even though the smell was foul, we opened our windows to get a better look. You could just see the gray plastic liner poking out above the liquid manure. This untreated manure is sprayed onto the fields using large pumps and existing irrigation infrastructure. Wilson mentioned that farmers are supposed to only spray manure on crops so the nitrogen and phosphorus can be taken up by the plants and not run into the waterways. However, sometimes the sheer quantity of manure demands that farmers spray on open fields, and with no plants to capture nutrients it runs off the field the next time it rains.

Not that the manure is better off in the lagoon. Regardless of the type of liner, all lagoons leak eventually. When Hurricane Floyd made landfall in North Carolina in 1999, many of the regions manure lagoons were flooded and thousands of gallons of waste polluted waterways. Even the covered lagoons leak into the groundwater, posing a threat to one-half of the area residents still rely on well water.

While Hall told us that there are alternatives to dispose of manure besides lagoons and spraying on a field, each has its own problems. Composting is not an option for such large quantities of liquid manure. Anaerobic digestors are costly and require high maintenance and a really large amount of biogas to be profitable, making this option only available to the very largest producers. Incinerators [PDF] allow all the toxic pollutants along with the beneficial nutrients to escape into the air, and the high organic content of the manure creates a very high ash content when burned.

The air we breathe

While offensive odors are an inconvenient by-product of CAFOs, Wilson reminded us of the fact that odors are only a sign of the many other chemical pollutants in the air. Some of these include [PDF] ammonia and other nitrogen  compounds, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter including endotoxins, pathogens, and volatile organic compounds.

In sufficient concentration, these chemicals cause mild to severe respiratory problems including asthma, skin and eye irritation, and an overall decrease in immune system function and health due to the stress placed on the body among many other illnesses. Wilson told us that as many as 300 different chemicals can be found in the air surrounding a CAFO, and it is this air that rural residents are exposed to every day. It’s enough to make you want to hold your breath, or get out of the area as fast as possible

Unfortunately for the residents of Duplin County, there aren’t a lot of options. According to an article co-authored by Steven Wing, a professor at the Department of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a mentor to Wilson:

Economic concentration of agricultural operations tends to remove a higher percentage of money from rural communities than when the industry is dominated by smaller farm operations, which tend to circulate money within the community.

An article from Duke University states that in 1986 there were 15,000 farms in North Carolina with at least one hog. In 2006, that number had decreased to 2,300. That’s 12,700 farms that used to spend the money they earned raising livestock in their communities. Some of these former farmers now work in CAFOs, where Hall estimated they make an average of $7.00-$8.00 per hour with no benefits. As we drove through the countryside, we saw signs of poverty everywhere. Burned out buildings and boarded up storefronts lined the highway. Houses had fallen into disrepair, and while Hall assured us that people still lived in many of them, I didn’t see a single person outside on that sunny, mild September day.

Staging a s*it in

Toward the end of our tour, Hall told us about some of the actions residents are taking to draw attention to the problems of CAFOs and their efforts to get legislators to change laws to protect the people as opposed to the largest livestock producers. One creative method was for protesters to bring fresh hog manure to the North Carolina Capitol and stage a sit-in. They should have called it a “s*it in.”

Others tried to build a model hog farm on Halifax Mall, which connects the State Legislative Building with other state government buildings. The protesters found it ironic that they were not allowed to spray manure on the lawn of the mall — the same manure that is spread on fields near their houses — because it was deemed “toxic waste.”

As we drove back to Raleigh, grateful to leave the smell behind, I thought about the animals, people, and rural communities and that had to suffer and sacrifice so we as a society can have cheap meat. The conclusion I came to is that it’s not worth it. Then I began to wonder why more isn’t being done to shut down this devastating form of industrial agriculture. The people who call these communities home are doing what they can to raise awareness, but are being drowned out by the people who benefit from large-scale, confined-livestock operations. I realized then that I was part of the problem, because lately I’ve been lax on my commitment to only eat meat if I know its origin.

Something to think about next time you bite into a ham sandwich.