This puzzles me, although I’m sure there are plenty of people a lot smarter than me who could offer some insight.
Why is it that after decades of conflict between pork producers, regulators, activists and various local residents, industry hasn’t solved the challenge of developing an efficient handling/processing/distributing system for the manure generated by confinement operations?
For example: Back in the early 1990s, Circle 4 Farms constructed what eventually became a massive hog production complex in the tiny hamlet (no pun intended) of Milford, Utah, which—no offense to the good people in that remote corner of the state—had the rundown look of a town that time had passed by.
Like years ago.
The area was truly remote—good luck finding the town on a gas station map—sparsely populated and blessed with the kind of coarse, alluvial soil that provides an excellent base for excavating massive lagoons. Of course, labor requirements are much less intensive for a production site than a processing facility, so the relative lack of a local population base wasn’t a big problem, and the region’s semi-arid climate made operations—especially transportation—far easier to manage than they would be on a similar sized location back in the Midwest or East Coast.
Plus, groundwater contamination isn’t an issue where wells have to be dug hundreds of feet deep to reach the water table.
Keep in mind that the hog barns Circle Four built were miles away from Milford itself and separated from the few farms struggling to survive here and there by acres and acres of scrub trees and grasslands.
Yet within months after production began, bitter complaints were lodged about rank odors violating the farmsteads and residential areas (such as they were) nearest to the barns. Activists whipped up local rancor among long-time locals upset over the influx of dozens and dozens of workers, managers and executives brought in to run the operations.
Media coverage was almost universally negative, depicting the big, bad corporate influence of “outside money” contaminating not only the air quality but the lifestyles of the poor and unknown in Milford.
I caught a whiff or two of the acrid odor of decomposing pig manure myself in the two days I spent in the area back then. Nothing overpowering, but certainly obnoxious if you were unfortunate enough to live downwind from the Circle Four barns 24/7/365.
Truthfully, the company invested millions attempting to mitigate the problem and appease the activists, but in relatively flat, open country like western Utah, when the wind blows, it blows whatever smells are in the air for miles around.
Same story, same smell
Granted, that was 20 years ago, but just this week yet another activist “campaign” is underway to force yet another a high-profile pork producer to control odor emissions on its production site—using the same tactics, the same media coverage (only augmented by online and social media this time around) as Circle Four’s opponents did a couple decades ago.
In this case, the producer is Seaboard Food’s Ladder Creek feeding operation in Greeley County, Kansas. With a capacity of up to132,000 hogs, the site is one of the largest around and features 10 manure lagoons to hold the waste generated by all those pigs.
According to the Sierra Club, which is leading the fight against Seaboard, state regulations require those lagoons to be maintained at a depth of at least 10 feet, which is accomplished by diluting the manure with fresh water so as to accelerate bacterial breakdown and limit the release of odors.
Sierra Club officials claimed that the water levels are too low, thus releasing unacceptable odors, while the Kansas Department of Health and the Environment responded by saying Seaboard had been issued a waiver on the depth requirement.
“The permit contains no language allowing such an exception,” attorney Robert V. Eye, a former general counsel at KDHE, countered in a statement released by the Sierra Club.
Part of the problem is that Seaboard has already announced plans to expand its Ladder Creek operation to about 200,000 hogs in 2014. Again, the local groundwater depth, minimal annual rainfall and lack of population density make that area of Greeley County ideal from a production standpoint.
The problem—then and now—is the manure.
Yes, it’s a waste product, but it’s rich in nutrients, high in recovered energy value and ideal as an organic fertilizer after biological treatment.
Why, after decades and decades of the same issues recurring again and again—and giving the entire industry a black eye in the process—can’t a better way to handle manure be developed and implemented?
Is it that technologically challenging? Is it merely a matter of costs (not to minimize that factor)? Are producers simply hoping the problem goes away?
I hope the latter scenario isn’t accurate.
But I also hold out hope that the some sort of system comes online to effectively deal with the problem. And soon.
The current approach isn’t working, hasn’t worked and won’t work going forward.
There’s got to be a better way.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.