Unknowns characterize North Carolina's politically and environmentally challenged pork industry.

North Carolina pork producers have a lot on their plate right now. Many producers are still recovering from the effects of Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd, which brought unprecedented flooding to the eastern part of the Tarheel State late last summer.

Now, as the 2000 hurricane season approaches, some 85 applicants hope to be selected for a state buyout program. What's more, the entire Tarheel pork industry is facing political changes and challenges this election year.

Buyout Complications As of 1998, construction of new pork production facilities has been prohibited within the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) 100-year flood plains. And, there is pressure to relocate all pork facilities from such flood plains.

In November 1999, the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) received $5.7 million from the North Carolina Clean Water Management Trust Fund to buy out the waste management permits of farms located within 100-year flood plains.

"We expected to pay an average of $300,000 per bid, but we've received $51 million in bids averaging $600,000," says David Williams, assistant director for non-point source programs with DENR's Division of Soil and Water Conservation. The department is currently reviewing the 85 buyout applicants representing 82 sites. Selection criteria include lagoon integrity and likelihood of flooding. Farms within the 25-year flood plain with unlined lagoons will have top priority, Williams says.

Forty-four hog farms responded to a recent North Carolina Pork Council (NCPC) survey designed to find the number and location of flooded pork operations. Only 20 of those 44 fell within the FEMA 100-year flood plain. The FEMA 500-year flood plain yielded only one additional farm, according to calculations by soil scientists at North Carolina State University (NCSU).

DENR information gathered after the hurricanes showed 26 hog farms were actually flooded; most were NCPC members and included in the survey.

Ron Sheffield, NCSU animal waste Extension specialist, says the many variables associated with flood-site reporting and the unpredictability of the weather makes it impossible to rely on FEMA 100-year or 500-year flood plains for mapping buyouts, re-allocations or even prohibition of new construction. Sheffield chairs a subcommittee on flooding frequency and impact, part of a NCSU study of concentrated animal feeding operations.

"We're taking a holistic approach to the study," Sheffield says. "I'm not convinced scientists should be discussing the buyout because that's a political and economic issue."

Despite complications, Williams expects the buyout to be a positive program. "We're offering hope to people who have lost a lot of hope," he says, noting the selection process should be complete in May.

Political Positioning North Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Graham, a strong proponent of pork producers, is not seeking a tenth consecutive term. After 35 years in office, Graham, a Democrat, will pass the baton to one of 10 candidates - four Democrats, six Republicans.

And, after four 4-yr. terms as governor (not consecutive), Democrat Jim Hunt, who proposed phasing out hog lagoons over the next 10 years, prepares to leave office. Six Democrats, four Republicans and one Libertarian seek his office.

According to a statewide poll conducted in late March, North Carolina Attorney General Mike Easley lead North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker by a margin of 51% to 24% in the race for the Democratic spot on the November gubernatorial ballot.

Republican Richard Vinroot was the leading Republican contender with 30% of the vote, followed by Leo Daughtry with 20%. (The North Carolina primary was May 2, after this issue went to press.)

Producer Perspectives It's no surprise that Don Butler is concerned about the state's pork industry. He's got a lot at stake. Butler is a contract producer for Carroll's Foods, operating a 7,000-head, wean-to-feeder operation in partnership with his father, William. He also works full time as director of public affairs for Carroll's and currently serves as NCPC president.

"It's frustrating to see people run for high political office that are talking about phasing out a waste management system that works in the vast majority of cases," Butler says.

He's talking about Easley's highly publicized plan to get rid of lagoons in 10 years, and Wicker's equally vocal goal to get rid of them in five years. "Neither person is saying how they plan to do that," Butler says. "That's irresponsible in my opinion."

Butler requested a meeting with both Easley and Wicker in early March. "Neither has had the courtesy to respond," he said on April 7. "The North Carolina Pork Council does not favor any candidate, and right now the leading Democrats are out of the question."

Vinroot, the leading Republican contender, has a more well-thought-out position. "If we change technology, Vinroot believes it should be driven by science and research, not by emotion. I support that," Butler emphasizes.

"The next five years will be a period of continued turmoil and finger pointing," Butler predicts. "There will be changes in all levels of the pork industry and we'll continue to be a political football unfairly subjected to negative press.

"There's no silver bullet or a one-size-fits-all solution. Until alternatives become economically feasible, properly designed, constructed and managed lagoon systems will provide service beyond other levels of technology we know about," he says.

There will be political compromise regarding lagoons, notes Sheffield. "The state needs to really figure out the problem, not just say they are going to get rid of lagoons."

Sheffield believes concerns about lagoons must be more specific, such as smell, ammonia release or large surface area. "It makes no sense to get rid of lagoons just for the sake of getting rid of them. You have to have good reasons based on science," he adds.

"No one knows what will happen politically, but the agricultural community has to stick together," says Bob Ivey, general manager of Maxwell Foods (Goldsboro Hog Farms), a 68,000-sow, farrow-to-finish operation based in Goldsboro, NC. "Farmers and allied industry have to do a better job of being politically active and looking after our mutual interests."

Butler says the moratorium on new construction and expansion will not be lifted in his lifetime. "The handwriting is on the wall, and there will be no significant expansion, regardless of technology, unless we have a change in the governor's mansion. It's a trying time for all of agriculture, particularly pork producers."

The North Carolina Pork Council's 2000 strategies to improve its public image:

1. Conduct a Public Policy Leadership training program.

2. Establish a Rapid Response Team to answer any media story about the hog industry not based on factual data.

3. Establish a "library" of science-based information on water quality, lagoon technology, etc., and make it available on the Internet.

4. Create a state-of-the-art Web page.

5. Establish a systematic channel of information from the NCPC "library" to legislators via e-mail.

6. Investigate potential public relations methods.

7. Build on the progress already made with state Senate and House leaders, plus political committee chairs.