The hog industry rules in Bladen County. But some farmers worry about their future

This is the first story in a two-part look at the state of agriculture in Bladen County. Read the second story, about agritourism, here.

By Ivey Schofield

Michael Inman wants to be a good neighbor. 

As a hog farmer in the Bladen County town of Tar Heel, he says he tries to provide for his family in a way that doesn’t bother those who live nearby.

In Bladen County, home to the world’s largest pork processing plant, hog production is big business. It accounts for 44% of the county’s workforce and has an annual economic impact of $2.54 billion, according to a 2019 report by the N.C. Pork Council. Smithfield Foods, which employs 4,500 workers at its Tar Heel plant, processes at least 30,000 hogs each day. 

But hogs don’t always make great neighbors. In a series of nuisance lawsuits against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, some Bladen residents said their quality of life was negatively impacted by foul odors and the consistent rumbling of large trucks. In 2018, 10 neighbors of Kinlaw Farms, which processed thousands of hogs near Inman’s farm, were awarded $325,000 each. 

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There’s no evidence to suggest that hog production in Bladen has slowed, although Kinlaw Farms closed. But Inman, who serves on the N.C. Pork Council’s board of directors, said he and some other hog farmers worry about their future: Could they, too, be held liable for their work?

“We try to follow all the rules,” said Inman, 58, “and we try to do the right thing.”

Most hog farms in Bladen County – there were 142 recorded in 2020 – contract with large companies like Smithfield Foods or Prestige Farms, Inman said. The deals come with less financial risk, he said, but the farmers are beholden to strict quotas. They also must comply with state regulations. 

Michael Inman shows how his sludge collection system works in conjunction with his farm’s waste disposal plan. The sludge will later be used for fertilizer.
Photo by Les High

On Jan. 27, a Bladen County farm that contracts with Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, reported that it had spilled nearly 30,000 gallons of liquid hog waste into a nearby creek. The waste reportedly traveled more than a half mile downstream. 

In a press release, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality did not name the hog farm nor disclose the location of the spill. 

Waste spillage is a perverse problem in the hog industry, said Kemp Burdette, the Cape Fear Riverkeeper who flies over southeastern North Carolina twice a month to look for waste management violations. He says he regularly notices sludge leaking from hog lagoons, sprayed waste ponding in fields, waste flowing directly into streams and trucks leaking waste onto roads.

“If you see one or two (violations), then it’s bad management. But I see it almost every time I fly,” said Burdette, who works for Cape Fear River Watch. “You’ve got a situation that can’t be managed.”

Between October and December 2022, NCDEQ received 24 complaints about animal feeding operations, according to state data. One led to a violation: In December, the agency issued civil penalties totaling $34,500 to White Oak Farms in Wayne County for several violations, including failures to maintain and operate a non-discharge system, conduct air quality monitoring, be compliant with phosphorus standards, operate and maintain storage units and manage sludges.

But many hog farmers say the mistakes of a select few don’t represent the entire industry.

“Imagine a family farmer who carefully followed all state regulations, never received any violations, never received any complaints from neighbors, always tried to do the right thing and then found their farm at the center of a lawsuit,” said Roy Lee Lindsey, chief executive officer of the N.C. Pork Council. “It’s disheartening, especially at a time when we need to recruit a new generation of farmers to carry on North Carolina’s agricultural traditions.” 

‘Farmers are not stupid’

Chris Tatum, executive director of the local Farm Services Agency through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said hog producers have a good reason to behave: It’s their livelihood. 

“Farmers are the best conservationists and stewards of the land,” he said.

Lindsey said hog farmers today use 25% less water, 76% less land, 8% less carbon and 7% less energy than they did in 1960.

Thom Mundell, who runs a 50-acre farm in the White Oak community in Bladen County, said he grew up on a fourth generation, 600-acre farm in Virginia that raised pigs commercially for a short time. 

“The balance you see now in (hog) production is between economic realities,” Mundell said. “But farmers are not stupid. They’re not going to do farming practices that will be detrimental to the long use of land.”

Five years ago, Inman contracted with an Australian businessman to incorporate a filtration system that separates the water from his hog lagoon from the sludge because the sludge level was approaching regulatory limits.

He said the sludge level in his lagoon was at 47% capacity – three percentage points below his permit’s allocated maximum. General permits, which last around five years but include an annual inspection, require that farmers have to remove sludge within two years of reaching 50% of the lagoon’s capacity. 

With the new filtration system, Inman said, the sludge is now at 28%, giving him some time before he has to remove it and sell it as fertilizer.

“We don’t want to contaminate (the land),” Inman said, “and we don’t want to abuse it.”

But concerns remain. 

Some families worry about their asthmatic children breathing in the air around hog farms while participating in Vacation Vittles, said program coordinator Randolph Keaton. Kids help harvest crops for the program, which connects beach-goers with local produce grown in Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick counties. 

The high levels of ammonia from hog waste have changed the composition of the environment in Bladen County, said Viney Aneja, a professor at N.C. State University that specializes in air pollution from agriculture. They have increased the amount of nitrogen in water, leading to algal blooms that can suck up the oxygen from the water and kill some wildlife.

In 2013, Terri Hawley noticed that the water in White Lake, located downstream from Tar Heel, had become cloudier. Algal blooms began persistently popping up, blocking the bottom of the lake, which she had been able to see for decades.

In 2021, Hawley started a petition to pressure the town government into addressing water clarity. Since then, more than 1,500 people have signed on to the White Lake Clarity Campaign.

“The citizens want action,” Hawley said. “If the impact that caused acid rain can be reversed, so can the present impact from concentrated animal feeding operations.” 

The town of White Lake hired a scientist to conduct studies and create an online dashboard to display findings. 

The water clarity has improved, Hawley said. She hopes the town will now address the root cause of the issue. 

However, Burdette said, neighbors now have few avenues to protest hog-farm conditions.

In 2017, the General Assembly slashed NCDEQ’s budget by $1.8 million, limiting the agency’s resources to investigate complaints, Burdette said. 

In 2021, a three-judge state appeals court panel upheld a lower court’s ruling that said the state legislature was not outside its rights to pass legislation making it nearly impossible for people to file nuisance lawsuits against hog farms. 

“I’ve seen people whose lives have been basically ruined by this industry,” Burdette said, “but it is very difficult to do anything.”

Building relationships

People who live up to 6 miles from a hog farm have increased risk for anemia, kidney disease, sepsis and infant mortality, according to a 2018 Duke University study.

In the lawsuit against Murphy-Brown, neighbors said flies and buzzards flocked to boxes of dead hogs, and the consistent arrival and departure of trucks throughout the night kept people awake. 

Farm tech Misael Chable mucks out the walkway of a pig house on the Inman farm.
Photo by Les High

In signed affidavits, one woman said her children were embarrassed to explain to their classmates the smell that permeated the school bus as the door opened in their White Oak neighborhood. Another business owner said the odor and the trucks, which leaked excrement onto the road, hurt his barber shop business on N.C. 53. 

“I fully recognize the essential contributions of the pork industry in general, and of North Carolina’s hog farms in particular,” Judge Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in his court opinion. “But the record here reveals outrageous conditions at Kinlaw Farms – conditions that, when their effects inevitably spread to neighboring households, violated homeowners’ rights to the healthful enjoyment of their property.”

Rep. David Rouzer, a Republican who represents much of eastern North Carolina in Congress, recently told the Border Belt Independent that he is committed to protecting farmers by pushing back against “regulatory overreach” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The N.C. Pork Council, meanwhile, is encouraging hog farmers to strengthen relationships with neighbors.

“We can do more to reach out to those living near our farms,” Lindsey said, “and it is also important for our neighbors to feel comfortable reaching out to us with questions and concerns.”

Inman said he wants more people to appreciate the work farmers do and the obstacles they face while trying to put their products on grocery store shelves. And he wants to share the livelihood he’s made for himself with generations to come.

“It’s a great experience to care for an animal, watch it grow and know where your food comes from,” Inman said. “And I want my grandchildren to understand that.”