The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has issued a new report that takes a closer look at poultry farming in the state. Officials say they had no idea how much waste is coming from the industry, and that it's a lot more than they anticipated, topping cattle and swine combined.
The agency says the report is also the first attempt to identify where these operations are located, and it acknowledges that the state doesn't have a handle on the growth of the industry.
The Yadkin River Basin in Western North Carolina is located deep in poultry country. The best way to see just how many poultry houses there are is by air. It's hard to miss the brand new, glistening rooftops of farm construction, surrounded by fresh, orange soil.
“We are seeing smaller, older facilities going out of service and existing facilities expanding, so the big farms are getting even bigger,” says Will Scott with the Yadkin Riverkeeper, who is touring the area to study the growth of the industry in the basin.
“The areas of intensive poultry production have shifted. That's likely related to changes in where large processing plants are located,” says Heather Patt, who authored the report. “The Yadkin-Pee Dee River Basin has the highest poultry population in the state, with an estimated 60 million birds in 2014.”
Agriculture is big business in North Carolina, and poultry is king. The birds make a lot of waste. It's rich in nitrogen and phosphorus. In small doses, it's not a huge deal, but when there's too much, it pollutes waterways, and can be harmful to humans. Scott says the report also highlights emissions of ammonia, which can impact air quality.
“What that means is when these facilities are full of birds they have giant fans that are venting out the air in those facilities and blowing out air that is loaded with ammonia pretty much all day. That air loaded with ammonia is settling down on nearby neighbors and waterways,” says Scott.
The report says there are two ammonia "hot spots" in the state: one in the upper Yadkin and the other corresponds to a big cluster of animal feeding operations in the lower Cape Fear Basin.
“We regulate swine, we regulate cattle, and so we know where those farms are and we can track what kind of nutrients go into the water. We have no idea where the poultry farms are," says Marla Sink with DEQ's Division of Water Resources. "We have no idea since they aren't regulated, but we do know that they are contributing to the pollution in our waters.” The state is also attempting to quantify how much poultry waste is being produced and where these operations are. Researchers used census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Poultry farms create what's called dry litter, which is not regulated the same way as liquid waste that other animal operations leave behind. Farmers aren't required to register or get a permit from the state, making them hard to locate. The facilities are only inspected on a complaint basis.
A lot of the farms contract with or grow birds for large companies like Tyson and Perdue. In a statement, Tyson says the responsibility for waste removal rests with the farmers.
But this is no easy task and there's little support, according to Genell Pridgen. She used to grow chickens for major producers.
“Because you have to have enough land to put it on or you've got to find somebody who's going to take it, and need it and take it at the exact time that you're cleaning out your buildings, or you can store some under a manure shed, but probably not all of it,” says Pridgen. “Nobody's checking where the manure goes, none of it. They're supposed to keep records but nobody's checking them."
Brian Long with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture says farmers are moving in the right direction managing animal waste, adding that many of them participate in voluntary educational programs offered by the state. It can be lucrative for farmers who sell it as organic fertilizer.
As far as this report goes, Long says he'd like to see more research done before there's any move for more regulation.
“The report didn't look beyond animal waste to other nutrient sources such as commercial and residential development, municipal wastewater and industrial discharges,” Long says. “One of the other items in the report is there were reductions of nitrogen and phosphorus levels in some of the river basins and that's a good sign.”
So, why is poultry treated differently than swine or cattle? For one reason, there was a series of high profile incidents, like Hurricane Floyd in the 1990s that prompted legislation for swine farms.
Right now, there's little political will in Raleigh for new poultry regulations. Researchers at the state say only that they hope the report spurs conversation among the agencies, and that this is just a first step.
Tomorrow, WFDD's Keri Brown will take a closer look at one community in Surry County where the expansion of large chicken houses is pitting some neighbors against the lifeblood of the industry.
Follow WFDD's Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news