The smell doesn’t hit until you step out of Leon Moses’ pickup, past the “biosecurity area” sign at the beginning of the gravel road. The stench doesn’t wash over you like a wave, standing outside of the compact Swine Research Unit on the farm at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University—instead it builds steadily in your nostrils.
The smell is immeasurably more potent inside, with the pigs. Moses, the farm superintendent, will make clear that if you intend to go in, your next stop needs to be a shower.
Doug Jones—an A&T alum who grew up on a hog farm and who runs the swine unit—will offer white pullover galoshes for your shoes and he’ll dig through a cardboard box to find a jumpsuit to cover your clothes, as if you’re prepping for surgery.
Most days, Jones blasts 500 gallons of water along the building’s concrete floor every 30 minutes, washing waste that’s fallen through grates beneath the pigs out to one of three “lagoons” outside. (A few days later, the smell emanating from the notebook I brought inside is still enough to make me feel lightheaded.)
The hog operation at A&T is comparatively small: Standing outside the complex on a clear, balmy day, Moses said that while A&T’s swine unit can house 250 hogs, most commercial operations in the state cap around 3,000. That’s a whole lot more pig shit, and stench. Which is nothing compared to the environmental impact of all that waste.
But researchers here are coming up with creative, sustainable solutions to deal with it, so that you can go back to eating that barbecue, pork belly ramen, or bacon with a clean conscience.
Pork isn’t just big in North Carolina because of the state’s barbecue obsession. North Carolina is the second biggest hog producer in the nation, raising about 9 million pigs annually, according to industry group the NC Pork Council. Pork is the most popular meat in the world, and more than a quarter of North Carolina’s output is exported, particularly to Mexico and China, the council says.
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All those pigs create, as The Guardian recently put it, “A million tons of feces and an unbearable stench.” It’s arguably poisoning the waterways and people in eastern North Carolina, where the industry is concentrated. Something needs to be done, local activists say, but with the cost of implementing solutions falling to farmers rather than giants like Chinese-owned Smithfield Foods, little is happening.
Enter NC A&T.
The university is probably best known as the launching pad for the sit-in movement, after the “A&T Four” walked from campus to a Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro and demanded service. It’s also where a young Jesse Jackson got his start. But few people—even locally—are aware of the school’s groundbreaking research, which could have profound impacts on how we handle food and animal waste.
Wearing a sweater vest and a lanyard around his neck carrying a flash drive, the mustachioed professor Debasish Kuila explains that he stepped down from his role as chair of A&T’s chemistry department to spend more time doing research. His focus: turning food and animal waste into a carbon-neutral gasoline.
His research is still in the early stages, he emphasizes, but a recent $2 million grant from the University of North Carolina’s Research Opportunities Initiative is the kind of catalyst that could jumpstart his research and ultimately lead to a more sustainable food system. Kuila’s team includes researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State University, as well as a few others at A&T. Several industry players are involved too, including companies like C2 Energy, which is investing heavily in capturing methane gas produced by pig shit in the state.
Kuila’s colleague and A&T professor Lijun Wang is already testing an “anaerobic digester” system to treat waste at the university’s swine unit. Wang says they don’t just want to turn waste into energy—they’re hoping to create a process that also generates fertilizer and clean water. Existing solutions only deal with select parts of pig waste, he says in the conference room next to his office, but they’re aiming for a more holistic approach.
Ideally the cost for setting up a system like this would be outweighed by the financial savings farmers would realize, Wang says. And that isn’t pie in the sky; Leon Moses, who runs A&T’s farm and fixes up old Pontiacs in his spare time, says they’ve been able to cut the swine unit’s water bill in half by effectively recycling liquid from the waste process. “The said it was clean enough to drink,” Moses says, referring to A&T researchers who set up the system. Laughing, he adds, “We didn’t try it.”
The Swine Research Unit exists as a functioning classroom for A&T students who will likely graduate and run their own farms. It also provides a testing ground for faculty research. But some of the most compelling work happens off-site, in various campus labs, where researchers take samples for testing.
Arguably the most interesting: professor Elle Fini’s discovery that oil extracted from hog waste can be turned into “a new type of asphalt” called Bio-Adhesive that could be used to pave roads. Fini wasn’t available to talk about her findings, but the university says that her product only costs 56 cents per gallon to process and that it can help reduce our petroleum dependency.
Researchers at NC A&T aren’t the only ones generating solutions, of course. Researchers at NC State created a list of ways to deal with hog waste years ago that’s largely been ignored due to the price tag. And while waste-filled lagoons can be covered to capture methane and turn it into electricity, but less than 40 hog farms in the country are doing so.
But 30 minutes north of A&T’s farm just over the county line at PTB Farm, there’s no pig shit problem. As co-owner Hillary Wilson Kimmel’s golf cart bumps along a path that lopes alongside one of her pastures, she explains that’s because they run this farm in a more sustainable way on the front end.
There are currently about 60 pigs on site, some of them rummaging through a wooded area, and they’re regularly moved across the land. This eliminates waste concerns, as droppings become fertilizer. There’s no need for clean-up, let alone a lagoon. You can stand in the middle of the hillside here—with a steady breeze—and still not notice a smell.
This farm is part of what A&T calls “a growing niche market for ‘upscale’ pork,” selling its products at farmers’ markets for a considerably higher rate than the state’s average. A&T is set up to help small farmers using either system. But as swine unit manager Doug Jones explains, standing in a temperature-controlled room full of piglets, raising hogs inside allows for speedier growth. Pigs can grow to a full 250-pound weight in three months rather than the nine it takes outside.
That’s why—even if there’s a shift towards Wilson Kimmel’s model—the research being done by at NC A&T is so important. Otherwise we’ll be in deep shit. Literally.