North Carolina's heady growth of the last decade has slowed to a crawl. The state skyrocketed from marketing 4 million hogs a year in 1987 to nearly 14 million in 1997, according to Pork Board data. Now, experts in the state do not expect major growth to occur, especially in hog finishing.

"First, a 2-year moratorium is in effect until March 1999, so that makes rapid expansion unlikely in the near future," reports Kelly Zering, North Carolina State University economist. "Second, we produced 18.2 million pigs last year and packing capacity in the region is 13-14 million. So without packing capacity, it is difficult to justify new finishing floors."

Instead, new growth may come from sow herds with weaned and feeder pigs sent out of the state for finishing. "I think there are still a few opportunities to build new sow farms," Zering says.

In fact, the breeding herd continues to grow. Breeding animals increased 50,000 head in the first quarter of 1998, according to USDA's Hogs & Pigs report.

"If there was to be some additional packing capacity on the East Coast, we might see some finishing farms to finish some pigs now being shipped out of the state," Zering adds. "We exported close to 3 million weaned and feeder pigs last year. We will likely exceed that this year.

"I think there is a pretty good chance of a packing plant being built in the southeast in the next few years," he suggests. "But with all the political turmoil we've had, it makes it difficult to predict when and where.

"The hog industry contributed $1.9 billion in revenues to farmers in eastern North Carolina last year," Zering adds. "So we're really taking a lot of interest in how to sustain this industry."

972 Municipal Spills Meanwhile, the North Carolina pork industry is savoring a reprieve from being the environmental whipping boy. Media and public attention is slowly turning to municipal discretions.

Since the beginning of the year, municipalities in North Carolina experienced more than 972 spills, for a total of 73 million gal. of mostly untreated human sewage, notes Walter Cherry, executive director of the North Carolina Pork Council, Inc. Hog farms reported only 18 spills in the same period of time.

In addition, state inspections, now required twice a year of all hog operations, have turned up few problems. "If we look at deficiencies that could actually have an impact on water quality, most run less than 2% (of inspections)," Cherry reports.

Out of 5,839 inspections in 1997, just 1.59% had any discharge from any part of the operation. And only 0.33% reached surface waters. Another 2.43% showed evidence of any past discharge.

"Our producers are trying to do a good job," Cherry says. "The educational program our state mandated has created a heightened awareness. It has done a good job of letting people know what is expected, what they should do when, how and where."

North Carolina producers applying manure to land must attend a 10-hour course and pass a test. Then they must take six hours of continuing education over three years. This makes it one of the strictest educational requirements in the country.

The state legislature conducts its session this summer. So nothing has happened in the way of legislation. Cherry also does not expect much to happen after last year's bill with the moratorium.

Just in case, the North Carolina pork producers are prepared with a state voluntary checkoff to use in lobbying efforts. In existence five years, the checkoff will go from 3 cents/market hog to 4 cents on July 1.

Cherry explains the checkoff money is used for lobbying expenses, public policy and regulatory activities. The council also uses the money for a legal defense fund in precedent-setting lawsuits. None of these efforts can be funded with the national checkoff.

The voluntary checkoff has raised about $450,000/year and will increase to $590,000/year with 1-cent increase. A refund to producers is available. However, only two producers are requesting a refund, Cherry notes. And he says the larger producers are the ones supporting this program.