How Big Poultry in North Carolina Became a Pollution Threat - Waterkeeper

How Big Poultry in North Carolina Became a Pollution Threat

By: Ellen Simon

Chickens used to peck around the farm, but most now live in crowded barns where they never see the light of day—let alone a grub scratched from the dirt. 

Industrial poultry operations some as large as 20 mega barns, equivalent to three Walmart Supercenters—and some even larger, can open in North Carolina with little more than a building permit. 

“We heard rumors about a chicken factory coming to town, and it was going to be a big one,” said David Caldwell, the Broad Riverkeeper. “It was planned for a property right on the main road that takes you to South Mountain State Park, the biggest state park in North Carolina. It’s beautiful, pristine land up there, everything undeveloped, except for a few small communities, God’s Country.”

Caldwell and neighbors spoke up at a Cleveland County Commissioners meeting in September 2017, asking that the operation not be built. 

But it was. 

A little more than two years later, it’s up and running, with 16 barns, enough to house about 2 million birds each year. Runoff from the operation flows into the headwaters of Knob Creek, one of Cleveland County’s water sources.

That’s a problem. While smaller family farms of the past usually had cropland to spread the nutrient-dense waste from poultry, and crops to take up the nutrients, that’s frequently no longer the case. A 2009 USDA report found that one-third of modern broiler operations have no associated cropland.

The result is that poultry waste creates more nitrogen and phosphorus in North Carolina than the state’s 10 million hogs. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is harmful; linked to everything from potentially deadly blue baby syndrome to toxic algal blooms that can kill dogs and contaminate shellfish. The poultry operations also stink so badly that odor pollution can affect neighbors’ property values.

The shift away from diversified family farms, which could use poultry waste to fertilize their cropland, and to Big Chicken (as well as Big Turkey and Big Egg) has been dramatic. During the 60-year period ending in 2010, the number of poultry producers nationally shrunk 98 percent, dropping from 1.6 million to just over 27,000

By 2010, the typical broiler chicken came from an operation that raised more than 600,000 birds a year. The birds live beak-to-butt crowded in barns as large as 40,000 square feet. In North Carolina, there are now 593 poultry operations that each keep more than 500,000 broiler chickens over the course of the year. 

North Carolina Poultry Statistics:

Poultry and eggs are North Carolina’s top agricultural commodity, bringing in $5.4 billion in sales in 2017.  

No. 2 poultry producer in the U.S., after Georgia. 

The poultry industry in the state has grown from 32.4 million hens and pullets and chickens three months or older in 1992 to 167.6 million in 2017

The average American eats almost 84 pounds of chicken a year, more than twice the amount eaten in 1970.

North Carolina spent more than $11 million to compost chickens and turkeys that died during Hurricane Florence and its aftermath.

Their waste, which in North Carolina can be kept in open, uncovered piles for 15 days, can wash into nearby ditches, streams, and rivers when it rains. And, in the absence of any permit or inspection by environmental regulators, piles too often remain uncovered for longer periods of time, elevating the threat to nearby waterways.

Because so many farms don’t have cropland, much of North Carolina’s poultry waste is hauled elsewhere. 

Just as communities aren’t warned in advance when a poultry operation equivalent to three or more Supercenters is going to be built down the road, they also aren’t notified if tons of poultry waste are going to be hauled to cropland near their drinking water source. And no one is required to test to see if the amount of waste brought to that cropland has more nitrogen and phosphorus than the land can absorb.

By law, haulers that move more than 100 tons of animal waste a year that’s applied to cropland must submit an annual report to the state’s Department of Water Resources. But the department doesn’t have the staff to review and investigate where that waste winds up. Riverkeepers have reviewed these records and found the data was incomplete. So the law lacks teeth.

But even this weak regulation is under threat. North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality proposed eliminating the reporting requirement, a move that would decrease transparency in an industry already subject to scant scrutiny.

Back when Broad Riverkeeper David Caldwell and his allies spoke at the Cleveland County Commissioners meeting against the planned poultry operation, they heard nothing from the County Commissioners. 

The next thing they knew, the brand new, massive poultry operation had opened, at the headwaters of their drinking water supply, way up in God’s Country.

*Photo by David Tadevosian, Shutterfly, Inc.