Raleigh, N.C. Five years after the two top pork producers in North Carolina agreed to help find environmentally friendly technologies to dispose of hog waste, researchers have come up with five alternatives, but none that farmers say they can afford.
With 10.1 million swine, North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the nation. The farms produce large amounts of manure and urine, which are flushed from barns into open-air waste ponds and later applied to fields as fertilizer. The lagoons have polluted waterways when they flooded and angered neighbors concerned about their health.
Under the agreement, once North Carolina State University researchers identified the alternatives, Smithfield Foods Inc. and Kansas City, Mo.-based Premium Standard Farms Inc. were to switch to the new disposal system within three years, if it was affordable.
With the help of $17.3 million from the hog producers, researchers have identified five systems that won't damage the environment as much as the existing method, said Mike Williams, an N.C. State professor overseeing the collaboration between the state and the two companies.
But none of the systems appear to be financially viable, Williams said.
"The key question becomes, 'Will the technologies be able to get their costs down?"' Williams said. "It really now is boiling down to economics."
The existing alternatives appear to cost two to five times as much as the lagoon and spray-field methods. The developers of two technologies have been given time to refine their processes and try to cut costs. The additional research, which should be finished by late summer, is being financed by a $1.2 million state grant.
Neither method, however, is as cheap as digging a waste pond and spraying hog urine into fields as fertilizer.
The companies acknowledged when they signed the pact that a cleaner alternative could cost more and that the higher cost might be deemed feasible.
But an economic advisory panel that Williams has consulted during the research deadlocked on a definition of feasible. The panel eventually gave Williams one report written by the majority of its members and another by hog interests.
The majority of the panel endorsed the idea that farmers should accept at least some increased cost, even if it meant decreasing the number of hogs in the state by 12 percent. But the farmers decided economic feasibility means no increased cost of doing business. The pact did not seek to close farms or reduce the number of hogs in North Carolina, they said.
"The analysis work that has been done suggests that the hog operations in the state would shrink in size," said Bart Ellis, a vice president at Smithfield Foods and a member of the N.C. State project advisory committee. "That in my mind leads to an economically unfeasible situation for the industry."
Bundy Lane, a Gates County farmer who raises hogs under contract for Smithfield Foods, estimated the cost of the new technology would increase his operating costs by $260,000 a year. He said such a cost would put him out of business.