Farmland Runoff in North Carolina

by Blake Morris

The state of North Carolina is home to some of the largest pork operations in the country. In Clinton County, North Carolina, the heart of hog country, hogs outnumber humans. As concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) were adopted by industry leaders in the early 80s and 90s as a cheap production method, economic growth surged in Eastern North Carolina, littering hundreds of pork farms across the region. Unfortunately, cheap production has also come with cheap procedures to control waste generated from these facilities. Hog excrement is often stored adjacent to CAFOs in open-air lagoons.[1] This creates numerous threats to neighboring communities, the first being that bacteria in these lagoons break down the waste into greenhouse gasses like methane & carbon dioxide. Furthermore, while regulations have been implemented regarding the volume which a lagoon can reach before an enforceable penalty, the ever-looming threat of natural disasters exposes the risk of waste running off into rivers and streams. This became evident after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, where troubling amounts of sewage entered water supplies surrounding these farms due to flooding. 

Immediately following this environmental disaster, efforts to enact better waste management practices were put into motion. State officials vowed for change, partnering with Smithfield Foods, one of the largest pork producers in the world, to finance research into alternative waste handling besides lagoons. However, despite Smithfield Foods devoting $17 million to research at North Carolina State University, and finding solutions that could substantially eliminate pollution, none were economically feasible enough to adopt at the time.[2]

Pressure has increased from the communities affected by these farms, evidenced by a civil rights complaint filed on March 31st, 2021 accusing the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality of approving Smithfield hog-operations in Duplin and Sampson counties that failed “…to protect the surrounding communities from air and water pollution.”, communities that were disproportionately Black and Latino. [3]Residents have voiced their concerns about health struggles, which is supported by a study that found residents within 1.5 miles of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) experience elevated blood pressure, eye/nose irritation, and difficulty breathing among other symptoms.[4] These airborne issues are exacerbated by the “sprayfield” system, which showers hog manure into the air to be used as fertilizer on farmland. This combined with the risk of hog waste contamination getting into the groundwater crucial to the water supply of lower-income communities in Eastern North Carolina.[5]

Change has made its way to a few small-scale farms in North Carolina, notably Butler Farms in Lillington, NC. Thanks to grants and cash reimbursement programs, the farm installed air-tight covers to its hog waste lagoons, providing an effective way to eliminate runoff into the Cape Fear River Basin, as well as the general stench locals had complained about. Additionally, Tom Butler, owner of Butler Farms, invested in a digester, which utilizes methane gas from the covered lagoons to generate electricity for his farm.[6] While the solution is still too costly to implement on a state-level, it provides hope and a direction for innovation in the years to come.

While some legislation has been passed, primarily to limit the creation of new hog-waste lagoons & sprayfield systems and to increase penalties for existing hog-waste lagoons that exceed pollution limits, loopholes still exist that keep existing hog farms from improving their waste management systems.[7] It is imperative that local community efforts and effective policymaking at the state level continue in order to protect the health of North Carolina residents.

[1] Berger, J. (2022, April 1). How Black North Carolinians pay the price for the world’s cheap bacon. Vox.

[2] Buford, T. (n.d.). A Hog Waste Agreement Lacked Teeth, and Some North Carolinians Say…. ProPublica.

[3] Report, S. (2022, January 18). EPA to probe alleged discrimination in hog farm permitting. Coastal Review.

[4] Wing, S., Grant, G., Green, M., & Stewart, C. (1996). Community based collaboration for environmental justice: south-east Halifax environmental reawakening. Environment and Urbanization8(2), 129–140.

[5] Wing, S., Freedman, S., & Band, L. (2002). The potential impact of flooding on confined animal feeding operations in eastern North Carolina. Environmental Health Perspectives110(4), 387–391.

[6] Butler Microgrid | South River Electric Membership Corporation. (n.d.). Retrieved April 9, 2024, from

[7] North Carolina Bans New Hog Waste Lagoons, Sets Strict Standards for Future Systems | Environmental Defense Fund. (n.d.). Retrieved April 9, 2024, from

One thought on “Farmland Runoff in North Carolina

  1. Hi Blake — I enjoyed reading about the environmental implications of the hog farms in Eastern North Carolina. Unfortunately, it seemed like a common theme throughout your blog post was that innovative policies that proved to address the runoff concerns were too expensive to implement on a wider level. Do you happen to know if this was determined based on the cost-effectiveness of the proposed solutions or just because a bottom line number was too large? You also mentioned Hurricane Floyd in 1999, and I wonder how climate change and increased severity of hurricanes has or will continue to impact the environmental implications of the hog farming industry. In one of my previous classes, we discussed the Smithfield case (primarily from a Business and Human Rights perspective), so it was interesting to consider this same case from a more environmental lens. In that class, we read a back and forth in the Chronicle opinion section that called Duke out for being sponsored by Smithfield with all of the known environmental justice and human rights violations. It appears that Butler Farms is an innovator within the industry in NC. Do you happen to know where the grant money to invest in these programs came from? Was it federal, state, or local grants? For the sake of North Carolina’s environment and residents, I also hope that the loopholes you wrote about are closed and farmers find more cost-effective ways to control the runoff and GHG emissions coming from the CAFOs.


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