NC’s fast-growing and lightly-regulated poultry industry is a big and problematic source of pollution
As Katy Langley Hunt flies in a plane above the green and brown patches of farmland in eastern North Carolina, she often points out the new poultry farms that seem to pop up overnight. As the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper, Hunt advocates for the protection and conservation of the longest riverway that flows entirely within North Carolina, traveling through the southeastern part of the state and emptying into the Pamlico Sound in New Bern.
The poultry industry has gained ground since 1997, when North Carolina put a moratorium on new and expanded swine operations, defined as feedlots with over 250 hogs, in place; that moratorium became permanent in 2007. Over 900 million chickens, turkeys, and other poultry were raised in North Carolina in 2017 according to the most recent available data from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. These animals excrete manure and feces that can affect soil health and contaminate waterways, such as the Neuse River, through runoff, groundwater infiltration and poor waste management.
While the number of swine operations hovers just over 2,000 in North Carolina, there are more than 4,750 poultry farms. According to the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, these farms create 5 million tons of waste per year, which contain 175,000 tons of nitrogen and phosphorus. That’s more than triple the 40,000 tons of nutrients found in hog waste each year.
An environmental challenge for an already burdened region
This extra waste is burdening communities that already are straining under the hundreds of industrialized hog farms and their open waste lagoons. A 2018 EWG study found that poultry operations are proliferating in places like Duplin and Sampson counties. These same places already host 43% of hog farms in North Carolina, according to the EWG.
Since poultry litter includes not just feces and urine, but hay, feathers, and animal carcasses found at the bottom of poultry houses, it can be full of bacteria, adding to the slew of existing health, soil, and water quality problems in southeastern North Carolina.
For example, eutrophication happens when too many nutrients get into the water, as it does when poultry waste runs off. This causes an overgrowth of algae which takes up all the oxygen, turning the water a bright green, and ultimately kills aquatic organisms and their ecosystems.
Hunt always had a passion for problems like these. “I knew I wanted to study the detrimental effects of eutrophication on aquatic ecosystems as a result of concentrated animal feeding operations,” she said. “In short, after I would say that and people would look at me funny, I just say I want to study animal poop in the water.”
When she heard about the riverkeepers, she knew it was the perfect fit for her. Sound Rivers, an organization that strives to protect the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico river basins of southeastern North Carolina, employs Hunt full-time to work with government officials and monitor polluters, like swine and poultry operations.
Due to the high nutrient content of poultry litter, regulations mandate that each operation maintain Certified Animal Waste Management Plans for liquid waste, when applicable, and Poultry Dry Litter Management Plans for dry waste. Although litter can be used as fertilizer, if too much runs off into the soil or water, it can change soil chemistry, affect crop yields, and cause algal blooms.
To prevent these issues, carefully calculated agronomic rates are required. Outlined in nutrient management plans, these rates state the exact amount of waste that can be used productively by plants to grow, meaning that when the specified amount of waste is applied, the crops absorb all the nutrients they need and nothing more, reducing potential nutrient runoff.
Stephanie Kulesza, a nutrient management animal waste specialist in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department at NC State University, and her team research management techniques for poultry litter and other wastes. Kulesza contributes to two state committees that guide regulation for nutrient management planning. She says the best way to keep nutrient waste from getting into the environment is through the “Four R’s”: right rate, right source, right time, and right place.
However, even as farmers implement nutrient waste management plans, variables like weather can still have an effect.
“We try to do the best we can as far as planning, but there will always be things that come that you can’t really plan for,” said Kulesza, “For instance, if we have a very sandy soil, and we’re trying to do it the best we can, and we get a year of really strong rainstorm events, we can have leaching.”
Prior to use as fertilizer, the dry manure is supposed to be in a litter storage barn with a concrete floor and covering, keeping it from running off. The federal and state government can provide funding to farmers for these litter storage barns, but Hunt said she often sees the barns being used improperly.
“Most facilities that actually have these litter barns use them for their tractors and trucks and other equipment, not for litter,” she said, leaving the litter exposed to the elements where it is more likely to run off.
Even when farmers and haulers who spread poultry manure on farmland do everything right, they can only minimize the amount of poultry litter that gets into the environment.
Much more lightly regulated than hog farming
Lack of regulator oversight can also be a problem. While hog farms and their waste are monitored by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, poultry farms remain under the jurisdiction of the agricultural department, which has limited knowledge of their whereabouts, said Hunt.
“You can pull up a map online right now, on the DEQ website, and you can see a little dot for every swine facility there is in the state of North Carolina. We don’t have anything remotely like that for poultry,” she said.
Since most poultry litter is dry, the Division of Water Resources does not require poultry operations to have water discharge permits like they do for the wet waste of hog farms. Adding another dimension to the problem, corporations like Sanderson Farms own the animals, but the farmers own the waste, and thus are responsible for managing it.
Poultry operations such as farms and haulers must abide by certain requirements outlined in state statutes and rules mandated by the Division of Water Resources. But because general regulations were designed to apply to different kinds of animal feeding operations, they may not be as applicable for each specific operation, says Deanna Osmond, the associate department leader for Soil Fertility & Watershed Management at NC State.
“The regulatory framework for hog waste was set up. And they expected [all animal waste] to always look regulatorily the same, but that didn’t happen. And so the regulatory framework around chicken litter is not as comprehensive as it is around liquid waste,” Osmond said.
Osmond also notes that other pollutants not included in current management plans can still diminish soil and water health, “I know, a lot of people are worried about nitrogen in poultry litter, but they don’t consider the other issues like phosphorus,” she said.
High phosphorus levels in soil can diminish a crop’s ability to take up other nutrients that are needed for proper growth, like the micronutrient zinc, while adding to the eutrophication problems in nearby waterways via runoff. (The Farm Bureau recently filed a contested case against DEQ for requiring farmers to calculate their phosphorus loss rates as part of their permit. A judge temporarily halted that requirement, pending the resolution of the case.)
Regulators continue to fall behind despite the exponential growth of the industry. In 2019, Democratic State Sen. Harper Peterson of New Hanover County introduced an amendment to the NC Farm Bill to fund a poultry study to research the industry’s effects on the environment, but the legislation failed to win approval.
Fearing the unknowns about the poultry industry and its waste, Hunt continues to call on the state legislature to fund a study. That’s unlikely, though, because of the powerful agribusiness interests in the state. Like many industries, agribusiness is using economic losses from the pandemic to justify weak regulations.
“Is it as bad as we expect it’s going to be? Is it worse than we were expecting? And where are some of the really problem areas?” asked Hunt. “With [a poultry study] we are able to show that this is clearly having a negative impact upon the environment.”