Broilers, fryers, roasters, turkey, chicken – and eggs – those are the products of the poultry industry in North Carolina. The Poultry Federation claims that it contributes more than $34 billion to North Carolina’s economy. Statistics from the North Carolina Poultry Jubilee are a bit more moderate: they claim an economic impact to the state of $12.8 billion. They don’t disagree so much, however, on the number of jobs this business creates: between 109,000 and 110,000 people make their living bringing birds and eggs to the table.
This edition of CoastLine is the final installment in our series on concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. Over the previous four weeks, we’ve focused on specific elements of hog farming. Today, we shift the focus to poultry CAFOs. These farming operations are also a source of concern for environmental advocates.
On this edition, we learn about how large poultry operations function from two contract growers – one current and one former. And we’ll hear why environmentalists worry the growth of this industry degrades local water quality.
David Anderson is the former vice president of live production for both Perdue Farms and Butterball. Anderson is also the past president of the Poultry Federation.
Craig Watts is a former poultry farmer who once contracted with Perdue Farms. He had a highly publicized disagreement with Perdue over his decision to let an animal advocacy group take pictures inside his farming operation. He has since ended his relationship with Perdue.
John Carter is a current poultry farmer who is a contractor with Perdue.
Kemp Burdette is the Cape Fear Riverkeeper.
RLH: John Carter, a Perdue chicken’s life spans about 35 days from beginning to end, so can you give us a guided tour, as a current contract grower for Perdue, from the day the chick hatches, day one, to the day that chick arrives on your farm? And what happens then?
John Carter Jr.: Well, I’ll try to do that, Rachel. We receive the birds as they have fresh hatched right from the hatchery, and we make sure as they arrive that the temperature is warm. It’s approximately around 88-90 degrees.
RLH: Inside the bird houses?
John Carter Jr.: Inside the bird house, in the middle of the bird house. The birds, we’re concerned that they rapidly learn where the water is and the feed is there—it’s all put out ahead of time. The shavings, the litter, it’s all warm. It’s a very comfortable environment. Then we’ll give the baby chicks for about eight to ten days, we’ll have feed in many different locations, so that they have easy access to the feed. We’re watching the birds to see how comfortable they are, how the environmental conditions are, the air coming in, preheated air, that they are very, very comfortable. From that point, we’re looking for any significant changes—areas that might be cold, areas that are too warm, and we adjust. We have computer controls that monitor the temperature in the houses. And then from there, once the birds start, if they start well, then everything goes pretty steady. We monitor throughout the day the condition of the birds by stepping in, by walking around, stirring the birds up, making sure that the water and the feed are available to the birds throughout their life. Now, our birds, we grow to about 35-36 days because we grow smaller birds for specific restaurant trades. Birds can also grow to 60+ days, and they’re the heavier birds that would be eight and a half to nine pounds.
RLH: And so those are the birds that people would find in the grocery store, those heavier birds—
John Carter Jr.: That is correct.
RLH: And how many birds does your farm house on a regular basis?
John Carter Jr.: We’ve got quite large houses. We have about 28,000-29,000 birds at any one time. They’re able to range back and forth from one end of the house to the other end of the house. It’s always interesting to see one odd color—because they’re mostly white—but if you see a little black bird or a little brown bird and watch them move around in the house, they will go from one corner of one end to the other—particularly as they’re younger, and even as they get older. You just watch, and you’re just like, “I didn’t know they moved around that much.” But they are quite interesting to watch.
RLH: Craig Watts, you no longer contract with Perdue, but you were once a poultry farmer with Perdue.
Craig Watts: Yes, for 23 and a half years.
RLH: And was it a different kind of chicken that you raised?
Craig Watts: No, he and I were doing the same thing. When I ended, we were running a bird about 35-36 days, maybe four and a quarter, four and a half pounds. So, he and I are in the same complex.
RLH: Okay, and your story actually went national, it made national news. You let a camera crew into your facilities. Can you tell us what they filmed and what became so controversial?
Craig Watts: Well, it really goes back further before I ever invited the camera crew in. We were having a lot of issues when they took the antibiotics out of the hatcheries. I was seeing bacteria-laden chicks when they get to the farm, and it was just time and time and time again. And we were having some other problems, so I was snapping pictures, and I was sending videos to the grow out office at the time. There was never an issue with it. Then I got a delivery at one time, and what happened was the dumping crew, they just sat there and they dumped them right on top of one another. They have little boxes of about one hundred chicks, and they must have dumped ten boxes, one on top of another. Went back and a couple hours later, I had a bunch of dead biddies. I just happened to have my phone in my pocket. I was walking around, and I was filming and commentating. I was going to send it to the grow out manager, but it was too big of a file, so I uploaded it to YouTube, I sent it as a private link, and oh my goodness. They wanted to come right then, but I waited until the next day, but they never really did anything, and I saw a lot of things that I thought, advertising, that the marketing was not exactly what the public was getting.
The one thing that sticks out the most was there was a commercial with Jim Perdue, and he’s driving down the road and he was talking about how they’re transparent. And I can tell you right where I was sitting when I saw that commercial, I was in Brookings, South Dakota, June of 2012. It was like one of those moments like when Elvis died, you know kind of where you were. I was like, “Transparent? Okay.” Then, he stops, and he goes into a poultry house, and there’s market-aged birds. The shavings are brand new pine shavings, just put in there— Anyway, it was all staged: brand new spotless equipment, perfect pellets, the birds have like half an acre a piece to roam around. So I’m sitting there thinking, “That’s not what it looks like.” At the time, I was working with a reporter, I was advocating for farmer contracts. This kind of morphed out of that. He asked me, would I like to meet a friend of his who was a chicken expert—meaning behavioral expert—and I said, “Well, yeah,” and it was the lady from Compassion and World Farming.
RLH: Which is an animal advocacy organization—
Craig Watts: That’s right. She was on the board for animal welfare, and that was kind of the argument. And really, I didn’t do it for animal welfare. It was the mislabeling of the product. That’s what I was after. USDA was certifying things that I didn’t think were right. But anyway, so they came down and they filmed, and to say it changed my life is the understatement of a lifetime. Twenty-four hours later, there was like a half a million YouTube views, and there’s like over two and a half million now.
RLH: One of those precipitating events that you described, when the delivery came and they dumped the chicks on top of one another, and then you had a lot of dead chicks—was that a one-time thing or is that something that happened on a regular basis?
Craig Watts: That particular thing, I would say that was very rare. But at the end of the day, it was going to cost me.
RLH: Your real issue with Perdue at the time was how they were advertising their products.
Craig Watts: Right, image versus reality.
RLH: And David Anderson, how did Perdue respond to the pictures that emerged from Craig Watts’ facility?
David Anderson: I wasn’t really at Perdue at that time, so I can’t speak very specifically. I would guess that there was an investigation into that hatchery and the hatchery practices and a confirmation that all the practices that were in place were done accurately and done in a humane manor.
RLH: John Carter, as someone who takes day-old chicks into your farm, was that sort of a difficult transition for poultry farmers to go from having antibiotics in the feed to having no antibiotics and then dealing with more bacterial infections?
John Carter Jr.: I would say this: there was a learning curve to it, yes. We all had to learn together. I think that with Perdue being an industry leader in going away from antibiotics, and that’s where we’re at today, I think that each flock, something changed. So yes, they were adapting to it. Nobody had done that before. Particularly with the high health birds that we have, we protect the biosecurity because we don’t want any disease coming in. And so yes, we did learn, and I think we adapted quite quickly to it, and our birds today, I don’t think you would know anything different, just the way we handle them. And so, for us, it has worked very well.
Craig Watts: I totally agree. We had issues when they removed the antibiotics from the hatchery, meaning that hatchery is not a sterile place so it really showed the gap between what the antibiotics were taking care of in the hatchery because it’s an entry point for bacteria, and we were seeing it with the little chicks. Now, what he’s talking about, when they started taking antibiotics out of feed, we rolled with it. Same weight gains, I didn’t have any issues as far as once the birds got on the farm. It was what was happening before they were getting to the farm, that was where the issue was.
RLH: There were some other pictures that came out of your farm that really disturbed animal advocates. Can you describe some of what people saw, the pictures that made national news after people came into your facilities and you actually posted pictures yourself of what was happening inside your facilities. What was so upsetting?
Craig Watts: The issue was, up to that point, there was really very little transparency. There was undercover videos, which I’m not a fan of because they’re staged—or some of them are, not all of them are. I just figured I would open the doors and I’d walk and talk, and what you saw was, you know, you’ll have some little issue with chicks. You’ll have some with no eyes and no beaks. You have issues with young breeder flocks. You have issues with old breeder flocks. You have issues with sanitation of the hatchery. You have issues from the time the eggs are hatched to when they get to your farm. You’ll see a myriad of problems in the beginning. Not all the time. Now, if you don’t, you’re good to go, but you don’t ever know till they get there. At the end, you’ll start seeing some leg problems. You’ll really see just generally how they’re so chest heavy that it’s one step, two steps, three steps, sit down. And that’s really what they’re bred to do, and I think people just didn’t know. And then plus, the density, they’re so tight in there. You’re raising the birds on last flock’s litter or poop and this flock’s too, and you reuse it and reuse it. It’s bacteria laden. And that’s where the drugs in the feed come in. And no, there’s not antibiotics anymore, but there’s still drugs in it.
RLH: Speaking of antibiotics and the presence or absence of those, David Anderson, formerly of Perdue and Butterball and the Poultry Federation, can you tell us what the standards are now with antibiotics in the industry?
David Anderson: Yeah, the standards are that if you produce and sell meat that meets the antibiotic-free criteria, then that bird or that animal can never be administered any antibiotic at all, either in the hatchery or in the water or in the feed, it can’t have antibiotics at any point in its lifetime.
RLH: Does Perdue produce anything that is antibiotic free?
David Anderson: Yes, absolutely.
RLH: How is that labeled? That’s not the all-natural label, is it? It has to say “antibiotic free”?
David Anderson: Having been away from Perdue ten years, and this being such a ticklish subject, the antibiotic-free versus naturally-raised and so forth, I’m not qualified to speak on the Perdue marketing criteria, but if it meets the USDA antibiotic-free label, it can never have an antibiotic during its lifetime.
RLH: John Carter, does your facility use antibiotics? Is that part of the feed or can you sort of describe what chickens are eating when they’re inside your bird houses?
John Carter Jr.: Well, as far as our birds, I can’t remember the last time we had anything that was an antibiotic. The only time we would ever do it is if it’d be life threatening to the birds and it was going to be just a catastrophic type of illness, but it’s been a number of years since we’ve used anything that would be an antibiotic.
RLH: Craig Watts, you described new birds coming into litter from birds that have since left your facilities. Why was it so difficult for you to sort of stay on top of cleaning out the litter and culling the birds?
Craig Watts: Well, I mean, there was no issue with culling the birds. You cull every day. You’re looking at 120,000 chickens, you’re not going to get every cull out of there every day, which I thought that that accusation was absurd. It’s standard industry practice to reuse that littler for a year. You reuse that litter over and over and over again, so to say that, you know, you’re supposed to clean it out every flock or top dress it every flock—some may, some not—but it’s very standard to use that litter at least a year.
RLH: By the way, for folks who aren’t familiar with some of the jargon in the industry, what does cull mean in a bird house?
Craig Watts: If a bird is not healthy, if you can tell he’s not going to develop in the way he should, then you take it, you kill it. There’s an accepted method, the way you do it. It’s just out of respect for the animal because he’s going to suffer if you don’t.
RLH: And how may birds were you dealing with at a time?
Craig Watts: Total or culls?
RLH: At a time and then, how many culls did you have to deal with?
Craig Watts: The culls vary. Sometimes it’s awful. Sometimes you cruise right through with very few. About 120,000, four houses at 30,000 a house, give or take.
RLH: David Anderson, can you talk a little bit about the growth of the poultry industry in North Carolina and when it really started to become such an important part of North Carolina’s agricultural engine?
David Anderson: It’s been an important part of North Carolina agriculture during my lifetime, and a significant part of the North Carolina economy and certainly a big part, if not the largest part, of the North Carolina agriculture economy. North Carolina perpetuates that growth because of our location—we’re close to the northeast which is a big customer market, we’re close to the Green Belt so we can secure the feed stuffs to feed the animals—and then the people that we have in North Carolina have the honesty and the integrity to build good birds and build a good business. So, North Carolina works real well from a grower and a producer perspective.
RLH: Some of the more highly publicized issues with the poultry industry around the country have to do with some of the birds that Craig Watts described, birds that have very large breasts and don’t have legs that are strong enough to carry them for more than a few steps, if they can walk at all. Is there any concern within the industry about the kinds of birds that are being breed and whether this is humane? We know some companies are going to slower growing kinds of chickens, smaller chickens.
David Anderson: There absolutely is that concern, and our customers continually—now even more so than in years past—they ask us, “How the birds are being cared for? How is your animal welfare program?” Every company has implemented their own animal welfare program where they go around and they audit facilities and they train people how to handle birds. But in the genetics, we do breed birds to grow faster, and to grow more efficiently and a better feed conversion. If you go to an extreme, that can lead to a health issue, so as we develop our animal welfare program, we got to make sure that we use that animal welfare program in our genetics program, and we don’t breed to any extreme that exacerbates any problem the bird may have in handling that meat and that production.
RLH: Craig Watts, as a former contract grower for Perdue, what are some of the changes that you would like to see made in the industry, in the practices?
Craig Watts: I don’t want to come in here and knock on Perdue. I just happened to be a Perdue producer. There’s industry-wide issues, but from my understanding, they’re actually going leaps and bounds now. They’re putting windows back in the houses, they’re talking about putting perches back in the houses, outdoor access, a lot of the stuff that we talked about in that video. And if they don’t want to admit that that had something to do with it, that’s fine, as long as the end result gets done. He’s right, they were the leader in the antibiotic-free deal, and they’re probably going to be the leader in better animal welfare, from what I’m hearing from farmers.
John Carter Jr.: I think the things that are coming are definitely things that have been learned in studies of animal welfare and animal behavior. And the industry has changed substantially since I got out of college in the 1970s, I think it’s all for the good, but as we learn, we apply things, and it is best for all of us for these practices to be in place, growing the chickens, and as far as the long-term health of the animals and also the food safety in the products, and so that is our focus. I think we do an exceptional job at our farm. Actually, my twenty-six-year-old daughter is running the farm. She’s got a degree from Appalachian State, and she’s very in tune with what’s going on, and it brings a different aspect to it, a young lady that is very in tune with the environment around her, and I think she does an exceptional job. And we’re a family farm.
RLH: So what are some of these new trends then? David Anderson, you mention the animal welfare program. What components make up that animal welfare program, and what are some of the things that your daughter, John Carter, has brought to your attention and said, “Hey, Dad, we need to think about doing this?” David Anderson, I’ll go to you first.
David Anderson: You’ve got to make sure that the equipment in the house is adequate to feed the birds and water the birds and ventilate the birds at a comfortable and prosperous level. So a lot of it has to do with equipment: Does the house have the proper equipment to take good care of the birds? And then it gets into practices, and you can have a very well-defined program—and most companies do—on temperature and feeder and water management for birds at different ages, and there’s all kinds of specifics there. Certainly, there are standards in terms of litter care to make sure that if litter gets wet for some reason that it’s removed or replaced, and there’s many different standards that you apply on a farm and companies have just got to make sure that a grower knows those standards and understands those standards. And then the company has to visit periodically to make sure those standards are being upheld.
RLH: John Carter, what are some of the issues that your daughter might have brought to your attention?
John Carter: She’s constantly in and out, in particular making the adjustments to the standard temperatures to see if the birds are comfortable. She’ll adjust the temperature one degree or another, and she can do that because she understands the birds. When it comes to things that I think we’ve changed over the last few years is we’ve changed the type light of light that we’ve got to a more natural light inside. Now, they’re in the midst of studying— Craig had mentioned adding sunlight and windows, and I think as that becomes more understood as far as how the animals behave and handle that, we’ll probably see more of that. So I think just being able to adapt and looking at those things that make the birds more comfortable and grow better is good for everybody.
RLH: To be fair, it seems to a layperson—I probably shouldn’t use that term in this context—but to someone who’s not an expert as a chicken farmer or a turkey farmer, sunshine for birds seems like a no brainer, but that’s something that the poultry industry is now measuring in a more quantitative sense?
John Carter Jr.: Yeah, versus the light that we have inside, just the light that we produce, even now, it’s a brighter, it’s closer to natural sunlight as well, and we’ve seen that, I think that has helped as well to do that, so the next step is looking at, how much difference does it make to add real sunlight to the birds? Do they respond to that? And I think those questions will be answered over the years.
RLH: David Anderson, there was a response from the industry to Craig Watts’ video that was posted, that did make national news. An executive spoke about more efforts down the road to shine a public light on the chicken farming process, perhaps even putting cameras in houses. Is that something that you’ve heard more discussion about recently, is that something some of these big poultry producers might actually do in the name of transparency?
David Anderson: There is some ongoing discussion of just that because we want people to feel comfortable with the conditions their bird and their food are being produced under because it is a food stuff that we’re selling, that’s the bottom line. However, there are also some trade secrets that different companies exercise, and this is a competitive world and trying to produce a cheap meat, so there are some concerns there, but that is an ongoing discussion.
RLH: Other people have said that, the price we pay for cheap meat is that some of the animals perhaps don’t have the most humane conditions, and there has been this national movement toward farm-to-table, local food, the explosion of Whole Foods and organizations like that, so is there ever any discussion among the biggest producers of, maybe we raise our prices and build that cost into the price of the birds since people seem to want to pay more—
David Anderson: In terms of that mindset of humane production versus cost, that always kind of stupefies me because we’re in the business of producing that meat as cheaply as possible, and the way the bird does that is by performance, by feed conversation, by livability. Feed conversation and livability is driven by humane conditions, so if you take care of your birds, so that any customer would look at that and say, “That bird’s taken care of,” that bird also will perform, and that’s what our objective is concurrent with. It’s kind of interesting, that whole dialogue sometimes.
RLH: Craig Watts, if you could dispel a myth around the industry or around some of the practices or highlight an issue that you would really like to see improved? What would that be? What do you think needs to change in the poultry industry?
Craig Watts: Oh my, one thing? At the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, we all work for the consumer. I think we need to be honest with that consumer, and if we’re going to put something on the label, by god, you better be able to objectively verify it. You know, not puffery, not nuances, not meaningless terms.
RLH: What are some of the things on labels that you think consumers should be cautious about or maybe a little skeptical of?
Craig Watts: One was “humanely-raised,” but the courts actually made them take that off the label. Says who? There’s no standard there. It was just on the label. The other was, they put “cage-free” on it. Well, there’s no broiler in the United States of America raised in a cage for meat. It just doesn’t happen that way. It’s like saying the sky is blue. “All-natural,” I mean, what does that mean, really? I mean, you feed the birds synthetic drugs and you call it all-natural? All-natural actually means “minimally processed,” so maybe they should say that. Just consumers educating themselves. You know, are they getting a better product? Because you’ve got to be scared of “organic.”
RLH: What does organic mean for a chicken?
Craig Watts: Well, you’ve got organic like the people raising them out in pastures and they also have confined organic. Perdue bought Coleman Natural Foods, and I’m pretty sure they have an organic line now, and then you’ve got the guy out in the Midwest that’s just raising them in his backyard. They’re both organic, but quite a different beast.
RLH: Do you see yourself getting back into poultry farming?
Craig Watts: No, ma’am. 23 years, it’s time to move on. We’re actually going to convert the houses. Right now, we’re looking at hydroponics. It may not be that, but something.
RLH: You’re converting your former bird houses to growing plants.
Craig Watts: Yes.
RLH: Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper, we invited you on the program because you have made some observations about the way some of the poultry waste is handled from some of the concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. Can you tell us what your concerns are?
Kemp Burdette: In a nutshell, my concern is that we have, in North Carolina, so many CAFOs—both swine and poultry, and of course recently, a rapidly increasing poultry industry—that the landscape and the environment couldn’t possibly absorb the impacts. So, in North Carolina in the last roughly twenty years, we’ve seen a 21% increase in the number of chickens in the state, we’ve seen about a 22% decrease in the number of farms or CAFOs, so we’re seeing even more concentration of even more birds, so that’s concentrating waste, which is very problematic for the Cape Fear River and other waterways. Most people know about the problems of the swine industry, but now we’re seeing the poultry industry compounding those problems by increasing the amount of industrial animal waste that we have in the landscape.
RLH: John Carter, how is animal waste handled on your farm? What’s the process?
John Carter Jr.: Well, it’s totally different than the hog industry, first, because it’s a dry product. What we do is, we work through a litter broker. We have a nutrient management plan, but we also work through a litter broker that keeps all the records. And it’s a very natural product to use, and many of the farmers use it to land-apply before their crops go on.
RLH: Farmers who are growing crops by this, to fertilize their crops?
John Carter Jr.: That is correct. Yes, they use agronomic levels, and they have to monitor that. From our standpoint, we have, I think, a beautiful farm. I’m a city boy. I’m not a farm boy. I grew up in the city, and so we’re very interested in making sure that what we have is well cared for. We’re concerned about the environment. How we handle things and how we do things, I think, is in a very professional manner, and we’re proud of what we do. So that’s how we handle it: we do things right.
RLH: Kemp Burdette, the way John Carter is describing this dry litter that then gets sold to a farmer who’s going to use it as fertilizer, what’s the problem with that?
Kemp Burdette: Well, I don’t think it matters if we’re talking about litter or bananas. You can have too much of anything in an environment. In North Carolina, we’re seeing that an average broiler produces about a quarter pound of waste.
RLH: You mean on a daily basis?
Kemp Burdette: On a daily basis, correct. We’re seeing that these barns have anywhere from 22,000-29,000 birds, so if you start doing conservative calculations there, based on five flocks per year, and just in the Cape Fear River basin, there are about 5,000 chicken barns; in the state of North Carolina there are about 14,400 chicken barns. So if you add all that up, you get about 8.2 billion pounds annually in the Cape Fear River basin, and about 23.5 billion pounds annually of poultry waste in the state of North Carolina or in the Cape Fear River basin, respectively. That is a number that is so big it’s almost incomprehensible. It doesn’t matter what it is. The fact that it is waste that has high levels of nutrients, has high levels of bacteria is very problematic. And we’re just talking about poultry right now, we’re not even considering the fact that this is stacked up on top of already existing problems related to swine spray fields.
John Carter Jr.: If I may add to that, one of the things that you have to consider, the row crop farmers are going to apply some nutrients to their fields. They have to to grow corn and other products. What they’re doing is they’re substituting the more natural litter and waste for petroleum-based chemicals that would grow the crops. So, it’s a more natural process. So if you remove one, it makes more room for the other. The more natural the litter that we’re producing has the opportunity to go in there because it eliminates the need for the petroleum-based products as well.
David Anderson: And in terms of the supply, to answer another question that was put on the table, the industry is, every year, challenged to produce more of this fertilizer for crop production.
RLH: So you’re saying there’s a greater demand for this fertilizer?
David Anderson: Absolutely. It’s a valuable fertilizer, and our farmers who grow birds and dispose of the fertilizer, though a litter broker, they can get compensated very well because the value is high as a fertilizer.
RLH: Kemp Burdette, you’ve done some flyovers of poultry farms, what have you found?
Kemp Burdette: We frequently find litter stored in a manner that is illegal based on the laws that govern litter storage in North Carolina. We’ve reported in the last two years in North Carolina, sixty-five instances of litter piles being left exposed longer than 15 days, uncovered.
RLH: Is that one of the regulations, that a pile of litter can sit there for 15 days and then something has to be done with it?
Kemp Burdette: Right, it either has to be spread or it has to be covered. It can’t be placed next to waterways. We find frequent violations of this, and we report those violations frequently in a very detailed and legal referral.
RLH: And to whom do you report this?
Kemp Burdette: In my case, to the Wilmington office of the Department of Environmental Quality. At that point, we are unable to determine what happens next because of the way the laws that manage North Carolina agriculture and the laws that manage what DEQ can discuss after we’ve made that referral, which is another piece of the problem here, this industry is anything but transparent. We don’t learn anything about that referral unless a notice of violation is issued, and notices of violation are exceedingly rare for DEQ to issue to CAFOs of any sort in North Carolina based on the political power that CAFOs have here.
Larry (caller): Just wanted to touch on the transparency issue a little bit. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Kemp for a number of years—probably more than maybe Kemp wants to admit sometimes—but one of the biggest concerns and problems we have, particularly with the poultry industry, is this issue of transparency. Kemp mentioned the fact that we can make these referrals on how the waste is being disposed of and we cannot really find out anything further once we make those referrals unless it goes further. The industry as a whole is very much clouded in secrecy and even from a legislative standpoint, you have the North Carolina General Statute, it’s 106-24.1, which basically says the Department of Agriculture doesn’t have to share any information with the public about this industry. Kemp mentioned the flyovers that we do quite frequently and places that we see this waste that’s being stored, that’s really the only hook, so to speak, that we have to try hold this industry accountable to what they’re doing to the environment.
RLH: So if you think that there are violations, and you’re documenting these and you’re passing them on to the Department of Environmental Quality, isn’t it DEQ’s responsibility to hold the industry’s feet to the fire? Not yours?
Larry (caller): I think that’s, again, where the problem comes in. You have a state government—and I’m sorry to put it this way—that is very much industry-friendly and is not looking at the overall impacts not just to the environment, but also to the communities. This is the kind of thing that Kemp is dealing with on a daily basis, and without the proper transparency—which seems to be the word that we’re using today—the work that Kemp is doing is still kind of clouded in secrecy from the standpoint of once he sees a violation, if the state doesn't react to it, then Kemp knows no more than what he did before he started. It’s really not a fair practice when you have people like Kemp and other Riverkeepers in North Carolina who are trying to protect the environment. We’re not trying to put them out of business. We’re just trying to put them out of the pollution business.
RLH: David Anderson, I’d like you to respond to Larry’s concerns here and Kemp’s.
David Anderson: Well, when Riverkeepers or any other entity reports a violation, then DEQ does respond. They investigate, and if they find an issue, if they clarify that there is an issue, then they definitely respond to the farmer and to the company involved. That happens very infrequently because they don't find the issues, they don’t document the issues, and they don’t come to us with an issue. It has happened, but it is infrequent. But believe me, DEQ does respond, and there is a transparency because a company with a customer wants to be 100% transparent and show them that they’re doing the right thing, and in today’s world, you have to be able to prove that to a customer. So that transparency does happen.
RLH: Kemp Burdette, how do you know during these flyovers, for instance, that you’re looking at the same pile of litter that you were looking at seventeen days ago?
Kemp Burdette: We take high resolution photographs and we document the exact location with GPS. We complete detailed field logs that document everything we’re seeing: where the piles are located, any information about the piles. We frequently see these things; we do a lot of trips around CAFO country, and we see the same piles day after day. It’s just when they hit that 15-day window that we report them. This is a very common practice. To touch again on the transparency piece, I don’t think anybody in North Carolina who pays attention to the way DEQ does business these days would say that the Department of Environmental Quality is a department of state government that has environmental protection as its primary goal. I think very much they are a customer service department. The leadership of DEQ has completely switched the department’s mission, and it is a very sympathetic department to industry in North Carolina now, and I think that’s very problematic. And I think we’re seeing the impacts to the environment in many different sectors of industry across North Carolina.
RLH: And you talk about more nutrients being in the water and entering the Cape Fear River, does that impact the coastal areas in North Carolina? Are you seeing any kind of quantifiable impact?
Kemp Burdette: Most definitely. And it impacts it in a very important way, which is that it impacts our drinking water supplies. New Hanover County, Brunswick County, and parts of Pender County get their drinking water above Lock and Dam Number One. At Kings Bluff, we’ve seen in the last ten or twelve years, increasing occurrences of blue-green algal blooms, like microcystis that thrives on the nutrients produced and discharged by CAFOs. When waters warm up and slow down and you have a steady supply of nutrients, you see algal blooms like the one you saw in Toledo where, you know, 500,000 people lost their drinking water supply because of the toxins associated with blue-green algal blooms like cyanobacteria.
Christine (email): There was a USGS study that was completed last year showing the impacts of waste on our public waters. The current waste management methodology is not protecting our public waterways. Why is this methodology still in practice and poultry waste still polluting our water?
RLH: John Carter, clearly there are a lot of people who are concerned about the impacts of this dry litter and where it actually travels. Is this something that’s ever discussed on your farm? Are there discussions on the industry about addressing waste management practices?
John Carter Jr.: We clearly understand what the requirements are for us. Ours is always under shelter, and it’s either in the house or it’s in the litter shed. We’ve been raising chickens for eleven years, and we do it right. We follow the regulations. We redid our nutrient management plan a couple of years ago because we added four more houses. And it is the individual’s responsibility, it’s not the production company’s—now, the production company influences that as far as they don’t want bad actors either. Perdue doesn’t want bad actors.
RLH: You’re audited by Perdue. Inspectors will show up on your farm from time to time.
John Carter Jr.: That is correct, and I think the large majority of the industry are good actors, they do it right, and that’s where we’re at. We haven’t had any run-ins with any environmental groups.
RLH: Kemp Burdette, do you think that there are new laws or new regulations that need to be in place or does there just need to be better enforcement of the existing regulations?
Kemp Burdette: I think both. And when I say “new laws,” I really mean more of a complete change in the industry. We have to treat animal waste. We can’t just spread it out on fields in the amounts that we’re spreading it on now and not expect to see continued degradation of our waterways, our drinking water supplies, our fisheries, our human health. We haven’t talked about, on this segment, the impacts of these farms to the people that live around these farms. And if we don’t start treating waste, we are going to see disasters like we saw associated with the hog industry in the 1990s.