If you don't want to hear the answer, don't ask the question. I'm not exactly sure who originated this sage advice, but it was probably some wise parent responding to a child's plea for something they knew they couldn't or shouldn't have.

Unfortunately, this cautionary philosophy has spilled into our adult lives, and sometimes prevents us from exploring tough questions for fear that the answers we seek may be unfavorable.

In North Carolina, there's a group of 150 contract hog farmers who overcame the temptation to lay low on environmental issues. They formed Frontline Farmers, Inc. in the mid-'90s when newspapers, environmentalists and social activists were slinging derogatory charges at the state's fast-growing pork industry.

By 1995, pork production in the state had grown to seven million head and citizens were growing restless, pushing for new regulations that often lacked the facts, research or economic impact to support them.

But the fledgling non-profit group persisted, doggedly focused on providing regulators with facts, useful insight and reason to help balance the negative headlines peppering the state's newspapers. Beneficial relationships were formed with members of the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR), the state attorney general's office, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

Members also took the first steps toward offering researchers access to their farms in an effort to establish a baseline for lagoon and field spraying operations, as well as improving lagoon designs, field spraying techniques and new technologies.

Water Quality Initiative

The latest proactive move by Frontline Farmers was a bold, thorough analysis of 32 years of water quality data compiled by the DENR, including the span of rapid pork production growth between 1990 and 1998.

The monumental cache of data, which included 183 water quality parameters, was narrowed to seven primary indicators of livestock pollution — total Kjeldahl nitrogen, ammonia nitrogen, nitrite+nitrate nitrogen, total phosphorus, orthophosphorus, five-day biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and fecal coliform.

Resolute in their quest, they recruited a highly published researcher with nearly two decades of experience in animal production and environmental quality issues, Dwayne Edwards, to conduct the study. The focus was on four, well-known North Carolina basins — Cape Fear, Neuse, Tar-Pamilco and White Oak River basins.

Cape Fear, the most hog-dense basin, averages 572 head/sq. mile. Duplin County, within the Cape Fear basin, had a hog density of over 2,500 head/sq. mile in the 2001 dataset.

Study Yields Positive Message

The release announcing the study results reads: “A new study, which shows stable-to-improving water quality in eastern North Carolina, brings good news for tourism, economic growth, pork producers, environmentalists and all eastern North Carolinians after years of concern and uncertainty. When evaluated for certain discharge parameters, 46% of all sampling stations within the four basins experienced a trend toward improving water quality, while 23% demonstrated stable water quality; only 5% showed a trend toward deteriorating water quality, and the location of the monitoring stations pointed to urban growth as a possible factor.”

Bundy Lane, Frontline's Environmental Committee chairman, says the study had two objectives:

“First, we felt we needed to determine the real impact of pork production on our eastern North Carolina environment. In the last decade, everyone just threw out accusations and regulations. To move forward and build cooperation among all concerned, you need the facts. We felt that a review of these samples would give everyone the truth.

“Second, we wanted to establish a baseline for measuring livestock impact in the future.”

Lane feels that state and federal regulations have been passed based on the premise that hog production was degrading to water quality. “The data doesn't support that in North Carolina and, I suspect, it doesn't support it in other states either.”

He encourages producers in other states to forge a partnership with other environmentally conscious groups to conduct similar reviews of scientific data.

Sure, you run the risk of uncovering problems, but as Lane says, “then you have to step up to address the problem.”

The scientific analysis cost about $30,000, plus another $20,000 for administrative and distribution costs. But the group feels they got their money's worth. The study received good media coverage, and state legislators have promised a hearing during the next session on water quality issues and the impact of livestock production. Sometimes it pays to ask the tough questions.