by Kelly Lester
Policy Analyst for the Center for Food, Power, and Life, John Locke Foundation
Note: This research brief is part of a series. In this brief I discuss the history of hog farming in the state and when controversy over hog waste disposal methods began. Future research briefs will discuss alternative methods to hog waste disposal, storage, and use and the research literature on the negative effects of hog waste pollution.
Hog farming is integral to the North Carolina economy. The industry has been around for a long time, but in the late 20th century it saw huge rates of growth. From farming to processing and retail, the pork industry brings in around $10 billion in economic output each year for the state and generates over 40,000 jobs. In Eastern North Carolina counties, such as Sampson and Duplin, pigs are rumored to outnumber people almost 30 to 1. The state is the third-largest producer of pork in the country, behind only Iowa and Minnesota.
Hog waste, however, is a significant problem. A 220-pound pig produces about 11 pounds of manure per day. Now multiply that by millions of pigs. The method of disposal for hog waste has come with lots of controversy, with some even deeming it “environmental racism.”
In this first brief, I consolidate the long history of hog farming in the state and explain reasons for all the controversy around such an important industry.
Hog farming in North Carolina can be traced back to the early colonial period when European explorers introduced swine to the region. These hogs, often referred to as “razorbacks” due to their wiry appearance and sharp snouts, roamed freely in the forests and provided an important source of meat for the settlers. These early settlers relied on hogs not only for food but also for their hides, which were used for clothing and various other purposes.
During the antebellum period, hog farming in North Carolina began to take a more organized and commercial form. Farmers recognized the potential profitability of raising hogs, and they started selectively breeding them for improved characteristics such as size and meat quality. The expansion of railroads in the mid–19th century facilitated the transportation of hogs and pork products to larger markets, both within the state and beyond.
Slavery played a significant role in hog farming during this era, with slaves given the labor-intensive tasks associated with raising and caring for hogs. This period marked the beginnings of North Carolina’s emergence as a major player in the Southern pork industry.
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the transition from small-scale, family-owned hog operations to more commercialized and specialized farms. Improvements in breeding techniques, nutrition, and veterinary care led to the development of larger and more efficient hog farms. Farmers began to focus on specific breeds known for their meat quality and adaptability to North Carolina’s climate.
The North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now North Carolina State University) played a crucial role during this period by conducting research and providing education to farmers on best practices in hog farming. Innovations in processing and preservation techniques also allowed North Carolina to export pork products to other states and even internationally.
The mid-20th century rise of industrial-scale hog production marked a significant turning point in the history of hog farming in North Carolina. The introduction of confinement systems, where hogs were raised in enclosed buildings, allowed for greater control over their environment and feeding. This shift towards confinement systems led to the concentration of hog production into larger, vertically integrated operations.
Also, North Carolina’s signature crop, tobacco, saw a decline beginning in the 1980s and ‘90s. With tobacco under less demand but more regulation, many tobacco farmers began raising hogs instead.
Hog farming grew rapidly, and so did concerns over water pollution, smells, and health outcomes related to hog waste methods. In response, state policymakers imposed a moratorium on all new and growing hog farming licenses.
In the figure below, one can see a sharp rise in the population of hogs in the state. This increase is juxtaposed by an inverse relationship with the number of hog farms. The graph captures the great amount of consolidation, with numerous small pig farms being bought up by larger ones, particularly during the 1990s. One can also see how in 1997, growth and consolidation stopped due to the moratorium.
Shortly after the moratorium was placed, in 1999, Hurricane Floyd came through North Carolina causing many lagoons to overflow into the local water supply. The situation garnered national attention, with some people blaming the state for lack of oversight and loose regulations. Others, such as the North Carolina Pork Council, argued that only a few waste lagoons out of thousands had actually ruptured and that therefore the method of disposal did not need to be changed.
In 2007 the moratorium on new and growing hog farms was made permanent for all hog farmers or aspiring hog farmers that would use a lagoon system for waste disposal. Because the lagoon system is the most cost-effective and popular method for waste disposal, this permanent moratorium has effectively — and severely — halted the growth of the hog industry in North Carolina.
Controversy surrounding hog waste disposal methods has been around since the industry began to boom in the late 20th century. Residents complained of bad smells and polluted water. Policymakers have tried to address the problem through legislation, but hog waste disposal continues to be a pressing issue. For example, the most recent state budget allocated money for farmers to get new technology that will recycle waste more effectively for use as fertilizer. The state has also established biofuel programs to convert hog waste into fuel, but they have created their own issues.
This debate also led the state to enter into an agreement with a number of large hog producers to invest billions of dollars in the 2000s to research alternative methods for hog waste management. The research, which I will discuss in far more detail in another brief, unfortunately did not yield enough of the vaguely outlined required results needed to change the method for waste disposal in the state.
The industry is also accused in certain circles of “environmental racism.” The accusation is rooted in critical race theory/postmodernist belief that holds that, if any practice disproportionately affects minorities negatively, then it is ipso facto “racist.” Their argument that hog farming in North Carolina is “racist” is based of crude correlation. They allege that hog farms tend to be located near rural minority communities and therefore disproportionately afflict residents in those communities, primarily African-Americans, with worse health outcomes than people in white neighborhoods who don’t live near hog farms and suffer from hog waste polluting their air and water, let alone the stench.
The reality is that hog farms greatly benefit the state’s economy and the people living in the state. In fact, in the absence of a moratorium, the state could easily be the largest pork supplier in the country. The rate of growth of the industry back in the late 20th century far surpassed that of North Carolina’s other pork competitors, Iowa and Minnesota.
Nevertheless, North Carolina’s hog industry desperately needs to innovate, especially when it comes to waste disposal methods. In future research briefs I will discuss the literature on the effects of hog waste pollution on communities and consider alternative methods of hog waste disposal that have been researched or are in practice.