There may be nooks of our world that have yet to be touched by humans, but as more and more pollution seeps into the air, water, and Earth, that notion becomes less of a reality and more of a historical novelty.
In my many travels and outdoor adventures, I’ve wondered endlessly about this idea. I’ve spent days working my way out away from civilization to find a place to only be with nature. I’ve practiced Leave No Trace and hoped my presence would not be recognized by the next traveler there. My escape was a form of destruction.
Still, I hardly took the time to apply the knowledge that I had of human-caused pollution and destruction to my daily life. That was until I had the privilege to witness the scale of human harm and natural destruction first hand.
In January of 2019, I moved to a rural area of North Carolina known as Duplin County. You may have heard of it here and there. It was featured in the film What the Health and is home to Mount Olive Pickles. It is mostly a farming community, and that is why we moved there.
When I moved to Duplin County, North Carolina, pollution, destruction, and general disassociation with nature became my new reality. Disregard for nature, and all of her wonder was the new normal.
My boyfriend grew up there. We’d wanted to move onto something new from our life in Salt Lake City, and we came up with the idea to start a small organic market farm in North Carolina. It was a pipe dream that ended in failure within less than a year. We left after nine months, not because we couldn’t farm, but because we could not live in a land so rooted in the suffering of others. We could not be surrounded by the systematic destruction of the natural world.
I want to make it clear that I met so many amazing, hard-working, and caring people during the time I lived there, some of which are still my close friends. I’m not writing this to give them a bad name. I am writing this because nothing is being done to help them.
Our Beloved Hippo Farm
To start my journey, there was our farm. We called it Hippo Farm. A silly name, but with deep meaning to us both. We honestly had no idea what we were doing or what to expect. Both of us grew up in farming communities, but we were taking a new approach and a huge step away from the industrial farming model.
All we both knew is that we shared a similar dream to restore this family-owned plot of land. After years of tilling, the soil nutrients had been depleted, and this once lush, green forest was more akin to a desert and nearly vacant of life.
What you must understand is that although the land between the mountains and ocean seems bland in North Carolina, it is full of life. There are forgotten ecosystems of wonder lurking around every remaining tree and surrounding every farm and field. The landscape has been manufactured to fit an industrial model, and the natural beauty has since been forgotten and suppressed.
Our first task on the farm was to make space for us to plant our crops. We were not going to use any equipment as were following a market farming model by using hand tools. To start, we spent days, then weeks collecting trash that had been tossed and forgotten for at least three generations.
By the time we could begin to dig our garden beds, we had torn down degraded buildings and made more trips to the dump than days we’d lived there. I barely knew what day it was anymore because we spent each day as a cleanup crew.
Finally, we made some headway, and the land was looking less like a wasteland and more like a homestead. Once we began to dig into the field, we found rusted chains and beer cans that had been tossed thoughtlessly only to be forgotten. Nature had started to reclaim them as she tried to repair the years of tilling and destruction.
By now, it was Spring. We worked rain or shine and spent hours planning, dreaming, and designing. It was a lot of work, but we were passionate.
Every morning and night I’d look out our kitchen window, wash dishes, and reflect on the day ahead or the work that had been done. I’d like to say that there were lush fields or maybe a forest to gaze upon, but instead, there was a barren hayfield and a Concentrated Animal Feeding Area (CAFO) to admire. I knew the CAFO housed pigs, most of them do there. If it isn’t pigs, it is turkeys and chickens. You can tell some difference from the building design, but mostly by the smell.
I saw the same building from the field we worked in every day. I’d see it when we broke for lunch or when we stopped for a drink of water, and when I walked from my door or drove back from town. I think this CAFO, just one of the thousands, was the first sign of my undoing.
As the days warmed and the snakes began to surprise me, the worst of it was brewing. It hit me one morning. The mornings in North Carolina are glorious and mysterious, all wrapped together. The humid air meets the Earth to create a somewhat eerie haze that reminds you that there is still magic left in the world.
This was one of those mornings. My admiration from the window quickly passed as I opened the sliding glass door to head to the field. It was like I was stepping into a wall made of ammonia, rotting flesh, and manure. Or like someone put a bucket of that concoction above the door to spill on me like some sick April fools joke.
I gagged, naturally, because of the smell and closed the door as fast as I could. I took a moment to regroup and gather my breath again. Then, I decided I’d try again, maybe it was a fluke, a strange breeze that was now passed.
Just as putrid as it was before, but this time at least I was prepared for it. Our field was maybe a couple hundred yards from this door. I tried, but I couldn’t even make it there. About halfway out there, my eyes began to water from the ammonia in the air, and it was all I could do not to vomit right there on the path.
I ran back into the house, gagging and confused. Looking out my kitchen window, I could see someone driving in the hayfield across the road. They were smearing or spreading something in the fields. This something, I later learned, was a mix of poultry manure and ground up poultry remains from last year’s hurricane. That explained it.
This went on almost daily for two or so months until summer came. As an agricultural area, all you could see were fields or CAFOs with a house here or there. The smell was everywhere, even in town away from the farms and fields. This smell became daily life for every resident in the county that Spring.
The Problem Was Not Far Beyond Hippo Farm
To put the scope of these operations into perspective, one CAFO will house at least 2500 pigs weighing more than 55lbs or 125 thousand broiler chickens. These are averages as some CAFO structures will be larger and some smaller. That means that two CAFOs of pigs houses the same number of animals as there are people in the city of Mount Olive, NC.
With such a large number of animals in such a small space, something must be done with their waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has spent time regulating waste management for the millions of tons of manure produced by CAFOs in the United States each year.
Duplin County, NC, ranks number one for the number of pigs they produce with 1,957,364. Then there are turkeys. Duplin County averages 9 million turkeys per year in production. The human population of the county is less than 60,000. All of these animals are housed in CAFOs. If there were suddenly an animal uprising, humans would be in a lot of trouble.
These numbers are staggering. What most consumers don’t realize is that each one of those animals has to take a shit. Oh, and they pee. These natural occurrences are now classified as byproducts of CAFOs. Dumping, spreading, and spraying shit onto the fields is the last resort. Where else would it go?
The reason they are spreading the feces around on the ground and spraying it into the air is that they are allowed to classify it as fertilizer. To manage the waste, something called an Anaerobic lagoon comes into play.
These lagoons originated in poultry production and have since stemmed out to be used in CAFOs for cattle and pigs as well. They were invented as a way to save on manual labor while still increasing the number of animals in production.
See, with a lagoon, waste could be managed as a liquid. Having the animals stand in pens with just enough room to turn around on grated floors to get their hooves and legs stuck in is about as unnatural of an environment as they could think of, but it is the one that allows this system to work.
This way, the animal waste, and spray water could be sent via gutters and pipes to storage tanks or more popularly, anaerobic lagoons. Once at the lagoon, the animal waste is meant to be treated to make it suitable for spreading or spraying on agricultural fields.
You may think that this is a good use of animal manure as a byproduct. However, the sheer number of animals and gallons of waste they produce each year is entirely unmanageable. A standard lagoons surface area is anywhere from ½ to 2 acres and up to 20 feet deep. For reference, ½ an acre is equal to 21,780 square feet. An average inground swimming pool is usually about 200 square feet and only up to five feet deep.
On the small end of lagoons, you would be able to fill a minimum of 22 swimming pools with animal waste. I factored in a depth difference along with the square footage of a small lagoon being ½ an acre in size.
These lagoons or waste holding tanks are always full. All farmers have to do is maintain the level they are at to avoid overflow. That is where the redistribution onto the ground comes into play. They need to put it somewhere else to make more room for a constant flow of incoming feces.
CAFOs Are An Environmental Justice Issue
Despite this obvious nuisance and health danger CAFOs pose to the immediate community and the environment, most of Duplin Counties residents support these production systems. The thing is that most of the CAFOs are owned and operated by families. Small farms are easy to support as your friends and neighbors own them, and you want them to succeed.
Although those family farmers own the land and the infrastructure like the buildings and lagoons, they do not usually own the animals they raise and send to slaughter. Companies like the meatpacking giant Smithfield own the pigs, send them to farmers to raise, and then take them to kill and process.
Now, there are many citizens and neighbors to these CAFOs that have raised the alarm despite the overwhelming support for CAFOs in rural NC. In 2018 and 2019, Smithfield, a multi-billion dollar pork producer, and meatpacking company, was sued and lost to several North Carolina citizens that claimed Smithfield farms were a “private nuisance” and prevented them from enjoying their property.
This small victory in the courtroom only cost Smithfield about 25 million dollars. Smithfields average yearly revenue is around 13 billion dollars. The $25 million fine is then only about .002% of their annual revenue. If the average American makes $50,000 per year, .002% of that is $100. That’s less than an average speeding ticket.
So, despite the lawsuits, nothing changed. This lawsuit started before I lived there and ended early on in my stay. Nothing changed. This was a slap on the wrist for Smithfield. They knew they could pay people off so it wasn’t something that put their business at risk. They could afford this one or two-time complaint because they knew it would end.
The population of the area was small enough and poor enough, it didn’t matter. The people didn’t matter. The animals didn’t matter. The environment didn’t matter. Smithfield can afford to pollute Duplin County.
The media would barely cover these lawsuits, and Smithfield would still have record sales. In fact, it may have increased their sales. Public scrutiny of these whistleblowers erupted in Duplin and neighboring counties about the Smithfield lawsuits. Many family farmers saw it as a direct attack on them and their livelihoods.
Many of the farmers in this area believe that they are doing the right thing. They think that they are feeding America. They believe that their impact is not detrimental and that they don’t have a choice. Many of these farmers believe that they are being attacked wrongfully and that they are the victims.
I Had No Choice But To Leave
Time began to pass for us on Hippo Farm, and things began to warm up in the countryside. Some of the smells went away as they stopped spreading manure on the fields. Still, I’d smell a hog lagoon if the breeze was right or I’d catch a whiff of the iconic ammonia seeping out of poultry productions. I’d see the noticeable pink color of lagoons leaching into streams or the pond I’d take my dog past on walks.
The smell never really faded. It would just come and go with different levels of severity. Even without the smell as a reminder, all I’d have to do is look out my kitchen window, and I’d see a CAFO staring back at me. I’d wonder what it was like inside. I knew those animals were suffering more than we were suffering, yet only I had a voice to say something.
There is a reason large corporations like Smithfield hide these factory farms in rural, impoverished communities inhabited mostly by minorities. If these farms were in the middle of New York City or Los Angeles, no one would support them. Either that or no one would live there. Everyone would move away so they could feel okay about what they eat just as they feel okay mindlessly supporting an industry of suffering.
If you take a drive in Duplin County, you will see what I saw every day in the nine months I lived there. You’d also see lawns littered with signs reading “support NC farm families” or “stand for hog farmers.” Honestly, the only sign that I saw that I fully supported was, “Stop complaining or put down the bacon.”
These signs were especially eye-catching because Duplin County was once a mecca for tobacco production. With the fall of Big Tabacco, many farmers were forced to redesign their farming practices around new products to survive. When this happened, where were the signs? Where was the outpour of community support to rally for the farmers? There was none because the community accepted that tobacco can be a harmful and unnecessary product that is detrimental to the consumers and the communities that grow it.
This Is Not An Isolated Example of Exploitation
In the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we are seeing a broader, more widespread focus on human rights and environmental justice. While I rally for animal rights, these injustices impact humans too. I don’t want to focus on this, but it must be mentioned that slaughterhouse workers are currently being treated as disposable.
In the news, when the closing of major slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants is discussed, we primarily hear about the farmer’s suffering. While farmers must cull animals, they are still receiving government subsidies, paid for by us, the taxpayers. What about the slaughterhouse workers? They're on the frontlines suffering psychological trauma of killing animals daily. Yet, they must return to work for low-wages in an unsafe environment.
Like the people living within Duplin County and other rural CAFO communities, many of them are low-income workers that do not have another choice for employment. This makes them susceptible to these kinds of exploitation.
That’s how it works. When we see animals as an item to be used, abused, and exploited for financial gain, we will begin to see humans in the same light. As long as animals are exploited, humans will be exploited.
If you teach a child that a fish or chicken has just as much value and deserves to live on this Earth just as much as they do, do you think that they will grow up to ever even consider harming or exploiting their fellow humans?
I am not writing this in an attempt to put small farm families out of business or to make my readers upset. I don’t want small farms to be overrun by big agricultural corporations. I support small farms and the families that run them, but these farms have to wake up to the reality that is their life. Perhaps the farmers are upset they have to cull their animals because they were so far removed from the process of slaughter all along. Now that the killing is put on them, and they see the animals as “wasted,” they’re eager to protest the system.
I support farmers, but I don’t support multi-billion dollar corporations that implement systematic racism, pollution, destruction, and exploitation because they can afford to.
The signs put up in the lawns across North Carolina rural communities like Duplin County should read “we support pollution” or “I support animal abuse” or “we stand for big business and corruption” or “I stand with systematic oppression.” That’s what you’re supporting if you eat 99% animal products you can buy in stores, not families, not farmers. You’re supporting an industry that makes money off the suffering of communities across America, and you support the pollution of our planet.
I wish I could tell you that the solution to this problem was complicated and difficult. I wish I could tell you that there is nothing that you can do, even if you live far away from Duplin County. The thing is, every human alive can stop this from happening. All you have to do is stop eating meat. When the demand stops, the production stops. When the production stops, the pollution stops. When the pollution stops, we can support the Earth while she heals and provide small farms with more sustainable alternatives.
Although I’d like to say that this experience made me vegan, I cannot. I was a vegan before I moved to Duplin County, and after living there, I cannot imagine my life any other way.