Most hog farms in North Carolina are tucked well back in the piney woods, adhering to an "out of sight, out of mind" philosophy.

That's not the case with Keith and Margie Barefoot's 2,880-head finisher in full view of a highly populated area of rural Johnston County. There are about 1,500 folks who live within a square mile of the Barefoot's Quin Deca Farms unit operated with son Brian. It's just a 30-minute drive due south of Raleigh.

Despite the population density, no one is complaining about the hog smell, says Keith. And, even though his house is within a few hundred yards of one of the waste holding ponds, Keith has no complaints either.

"Since we put this system in, most neighbors don't even realize there's a hog operation here," Keith says. "And the people who do realize it is here, want to know why all of the hog farms in the area can't be like this one."

The manure nutrient management system in use at Quin Deca Farms utilizes a series of ponds to stabilize odor-causing compounds and produce a soil-like material called BionSoil.

BionSoil can be blended with various plant by-products to produce soil-like products for use on things like home gardens, landscaping, golf courses and nurseries.

Changing Times When the Barefoot's contract finishing operation was built six years ago, it featured a single, anaerobic lagoon for handling wastes, recalls Keith. It smelled terrible to the neighbors, he admits. There were some complaints.

"But now the wind can blow directly across the system, into your face and you won't smell it," says Keith. In fact, a neighbor's newly married daughter recently left San Diego to return to the "good life" in rural North Carolina. She and her husband are building a house not far from the Barefoot hog unit. "If those hog houses smelled, that lady would never put a home here," he stresses.

The New System The original waste handling system was retrofitted 211/42 years ago with a system that treats both solid and liquid wastes, designed and installed by Bion Technologies, Inc.

Waste flushed from the buildings is first treated aerobically in a "bioreactor." The firm explains, "The bioreactors are designed to be high-intensity, microbial action zones that contain aerobic, anaerobic and facultative bacterial populations." This action, under water, serves to suspend solids and odors, explains Tom Stevens, Bion Technologies Inc. representative from nearby Smithfield, NC. Wastes are broken up and exposed to intensive microbial action using 5-hp. floating aerators, he adds. That action keeps odors from escaping to the surface and fouling the air.

For further treatment, waste trickles by standpipe into a long, shallow, earthen pond called an "ecoreactor." It serves as a holding cell where solids are biologically converted into BionSoil. When dry, they can be harvested for use as fertilizer or soil product. While the first ecoreactor is curing in preparation to be harvested, a second, identical ecoreactor fills and treats wastes, says Stevens.

Swine effluent is further treated in a second, aerated bioreactor and recycled back to the buildings for pit recharge and flushing via a 2-hp. submersible pump.

A third bioreactor treats excess wastewater and rainfall.

The Barefoot hog operation was the first in the state to be approved for construction and operation of the BionSoil NMS system, says Stevens. Just recently, a second, 9,600-head finishing farm in Nash County was permitted, the Denver-based company reports.

Unlike a lagoon, which is a temporary waste-holding facility, the Bion Technologies system is "a living, breathing system, an aerobic waste-processing system," says Stevens. Wastewater from the Barefoot operation's finishing houses undergoes a series of microbial assaults, reducing the total nitrogen load from approximately 1,200 parts per million (ppm.) in the first-stage bioreactor, down to less than 100 ppm. in some cases, lower than levels in some nearby rivers and swamps, points out Stevens.

Still, the effluent contains enough nitrogen and other nutrients to serve as crop fertilizer, though it probably will have to be irrigated at higher levels. The Bion Technologies animal waste management system reduces land needed for application by 30-70%, he notes.

Never A Spill The ponds designed by Bion engineers at the Barefoot hog farm vary in holding capacity and overall size. To ensure structural soundness, they all were built starting with a compacted, 24-in. clay liner, explains Stevens. Water level is regulated by the standpipes, mostly maintained at maximum depths of 7-8 ft. in the bioreactors, about half of that in the ecoreactors. The original lagoon is used as a temporary water-holding facility for extra rainfall and wastewater.

"This system has withstood three, 100-year rain events, including two hurricanes and a tornado in the last 24 months," says Stevens. "In 1995, we had 80 in. of rain, compared with a normal amount of 48 in. Even so, there were no breaks or spills in the system."

Service Contract The service contract set up by Bion Technologies was one of the key elements that sold Keith Barefoot on the agreement. "They come out here about every three weeks to test the ponds," he says. The end product is a top drawer, totally organic product which is natural and has been produced without any chemical additives," stresses Stevens.

Reducing odors and waste problems without the use of chemicals in your tanks, pipes or ponds is a great asset for the system, explains Barefoot.

Bion Technologies also supervises the microbial process to keep it running smoothly. They maintain analysis records and do harvesting of the product, all as part of the waste management contract that growers sign, says Stevens. Harvesting takes place every six months. Proceeds from the end product are split between grower and the company.

So far, the soil-like product is being tested for sale as a bagged product. Before bagging, several different medians are being tested to be mixed with the biosolids to produce the BionSoil product, including composted pine bark, chopped bermuda grass, pine shavings, peanut hulls, etc. It is a chemically slow-release product, making it a good choice for potting soil for plants.

The final product is a natural source of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and trace minerals. The product has an earthy sort of smell, but there is absolutely no hog manure nor odorous smell to the product, maintains Stevens.

Additional Benefits North Carolina pork producer Barefoot has realized a few other benefits of the nutrient waste management system that he didn't anticipate, such as:

* Less salt buildup in the pipes. "It used to be a big problem here and we used to use a product that reduced salt buildup in the pipes, but I don't think we even need it anymore," he says.

* Much improved environment in the hog houses for man and pigs, mainly less ammonia and other gases. The shallow pits are flushed four times daily.

* Use of medications is way down.

* Weight gains are up significantly. Whereas before, Barefoot was getting just over two turns of the finishing groups, he is now getting about three turns per year.

* Death losses have decreased, losing only a handful out of each group in each of the four, curtain-sided finishing units.

The knock on aeration systems has always been that the electrical charges make the system cost-prohibitive. Barefoot admits his electrical bill runs $400/month.

However, the system is over-sized. As built, it could handle four more hog houses. But recent changes in the state's environmental regulations for livestock operations means more houses cannot be added to the site, says Stevens.

That oversizing adds to the cost of aeration. Of course, the system really does a lot more than aerate. As stated, it turns swine effluent into a odorless product and separates out solids to be recycled as a horticultural product.

The final part of the Bion program is known as a "polishing ecoreactor," a wetlands program containing water typically created in the Bion aeration system, explains Stevens. Basically, it is a flooded, vegetated area in which nutrient-rich plants and/or organic soil may be produced. It becomes a wetland habitat for wildlife and presents a positive environmental image, Stevens says.