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North Carolina poultry numbers on the rise

Call goes out for more attention to poultry CAFOs as regulators evaluate state permit regulating waste management.

While much focus has been on hog facility expansion in North Carolina, poultry numbers are on the rise in the state, and that's garnering new attention.

North Carolina is now home to 515.3 million chickens and turkeys as well 9.7 million hogs. New research from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) sheds light on the growing poultry numbers in the state as regulators are debating the terms of the state permit regulating waste management from swine concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).  

“If you’re setting standards for pig waste, you can’t ignore the recent explosive growth of the poultry industry, which has largely flown under the radar,” said Soren Rundquist, EWG director of spatial analysis.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 147 million birds in the state in 1997, including egg-laying chickens, broiler chickens and turkeys. This was the same year when a moratorium on new hog facilities in North Carolina went into effect and the legislature ordered the state Department of Agriculture & Consumer Affairs to develop a plan to phase out anaerobic lagoons and spray fields as the primary methods of disposing of swine waste.

Fast forward to 2018. According to the new analysis from EWG, with poultry numbers up to 515.3 million. EWG spokeswoman Sarah Graddy explained that EWG's estimated bird counts for 2018 were based on the square footage of the barn and industry recommendations for animal units per square foot. "The barns were [identified] from satellite and USDA imagery. Waterkeeper made site visits to confirm a sample of them," she added.

EWG research shows that new poultry operations grew steadily across the state between 2008 and 2016, with more than 60 new operations added per year. The growth rate doubled between 2016 and 2018, with more than 120 operations added per year. In total, between 2008 and 2018, 735 new large-scale poultry farms were added, EWG reported.

Duplin and Sampson counties have historically been the epicenter of swine farms in North Carolina, with 43% of all hog operations. As of 2018, they are the top two counties for poultry CAFOs, as 762 poultry operations now exist alongside 931 hog operations. EWG reported that 23% of all new poultry operations it tracks are located in these two counties. These farms are concentrated with others, as 93% of the poultry operations are within three miles of at least 20 other poultry or swine farms.

The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is required to update its CAFO waste permits every five years and is currently gathering public and industry input on the swine permit. The agency must consider the cumulative impact of similar operations – hogs, poultry and cattle – on the environment.

Many North Carolina CAFOs are located in areas prone to flooding, especially as climate change-related weather leads to more frequent, more severe storms, EWG said. Although the 1997 hog operation moratorium was precipitated by hurricanes hammering farms in North Carolina floodplains, at least 74 poultry farms have been built in floodplains, many along three rivers – the Lumber, Neuse and Cape Fear – that flooded during both Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Florence in 2018.

Rundquist said, “As DEQ finalizes the swine waste standards, it must account for the enormous recent growth of the poultry industry.

Bob Ford, executive director at the North Carolina Poultry Federation, explained that poultry farms are taking steps to protect the environment. Currently, North Carolina poultry farms have nutrient management plans that are customized for each farm by a North Carolina State University poultry science specialist. “These plans are based on the amount of nutrient uptake for each crop or pasture if it’s land applied,” Ford said.

In addition, some poultry litter in the state is being sold to a renewable energy program. North Carolina passed legislation SB-3 in 2006 that mandates that a percentage of the electricity a utility company produces must come from renewable sources such as poultry litter. Companies started buying this renewable energy in 2012. The waste is used (burned) in plants to generate electricity that’s sold to energy companies, such as Duke Energy. Renewable energy certificates are generated this way, Ford explained.

EWG criticized how often DEQ enforces the regulation that waste not be left uncovered for more than 15 days. “These minimal regulations are rarely enforced, as DEQ does not inspect poultry operations unless there is a complaint. Worse yet, the water quality staff of the seven regional offices responsible for responding to complaints was slashed by 41% between 2011 and 2016 because of budget cuts,” EWG said in its report.

Ford responded, “Most farmers store litter until they can use it in litter storage sheds to protect it from the weather. If a shed isn’t available, they’re required to cover it up if stacked outside.”

On Jan. 31, the North Carolina DEQ announced a 30-day public comment period on CAFO waste permits as well as two public meetings. The first meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 19 at James Sprunt Community College in Kenansville, N.C. The second will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 26 at Statesville Civic Center in Statesville, N.C.

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