New Georgia senator works to remedy decades of USDA discrimination against Black farmers

Today in greenwashing: a state-sponsored video about the purported benefits of biogas

A screenshot from the video shows a covered how waste lagoon, which is the anaerobic digester that captures methane. In the background is a secondary, uncovered lagoon that catches the excess waste, which in turn is sprayed on fields for fertilizer. The uncovered lagoon and the spray fields both emit methane.

A two-minute video promoting the alleged benefits of biogas is notable not for what it says, but for what it fails to say.

The video was co-sponsored by the NC Department of Agriculture, the NC Pork Council and the state’s Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. Heather Overton, spokeswoman for the agriculture department, said the commission paid $5,600 for the production. The General Assembly created the commission in 2000 to distribute settlement money from major cigarette manufacturers to farmers and other workers displaced by the downturn of the tobacco industry. It  is administratively housed under the agriculture department. The commission did not return an email message seeking comment.

The video was sent from Laura Kilian, the agriculture department’s legislative liaison, to members of the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee on Monday.

What was said: “Renewable natural gas derived from biogas is recognized as some of the cleanest, most carbon-negative fuels that we can consume.”  — Gus Simmons of Cavanagh & Associates, the engineer behind the major biogas installations in the state: Optima KV and Align RNG. Simmons also is a member of the Energy Policy Council, appointed by the governor.

What was not said: First, who is doing the recognizing?
Second, the term “carbon-negative fuels” is slippery. A technology can emit no or very little carbon dioxide, but still send greenhouse gases into the air in the form of methane. Methane emissions can be expressed in tons of “carbon dioxide equivalent,” but it’s not clear what Simmons means here.

Nor did the video present data, not even a handy chart, to illustrate the “net methane” emissions from these operations. That means methane emitted from the secondary lagoon, which is uncovered, plus the sprayfield system, plus any leakage from the pipelines and other infrastructure, minus the methane captured by the covered lagoon, also known as an anaerobic digester. If the data is scientifically sound and contains good news, then by all means, share it.

Kraig Westerbeek of Smithfield Foods (left) and Gus Simmons of Optima KV in a state-produced video extolling the alleged benefits of biogas (Screenshot from video)

What was said: “We capture all the emissions. We capture all the biogas.” — Kraig Westerbeek, vice president environment and support operations, Smithfield Foods

What was not said: Again, if the farm has a secondary, uncovered lagoon, used to capture the leftover effluent from the covered digester, the the farm is not capturing “all the emissions.” Beneath the covered lagoon, nitrogen concentrations rise.

That nitrogen is then sent to the secondary lagoon along with the extra feces and urine, which is then sprayed onto farm fields. Many factors determine how much nitrogen — and nitrous oxide, yet another greenhouse gas — are emitted from the sprayfields and open lagoons.

A 2016 paper in the Journal of Animal Behavior and Meteorology explained that applying manure to the soil can emit nitrogen and nitrous oxide, but the type of feed, the weather, and the length of time the waste has been stored all influence emissions.

What was said: “It provides an economic benefit to farmer.” — Westerbeek

What was not said: Depending on the size of the farm, the number of swine and the complexity of the digester system, construction costs range from $600,000 to $1.2 million, according to industry reports and state records. There are ongoing operations and maintenance costs, as well. Construction costs can be covered by USDA or private bank loans, and sometimes grants.

Last week several lawmakers attended a presentation at the Optima KV facility and a participating farm near Magnolia. According to a lawmaker who was there, a farmer said he earned about $120,000 in revenue annually from selling biogas. If those earnings remain steady, it would take only five years to repay a $600,000 loan.

The proceeds can be calculated by factoring in the number of hogs, which allows the biogas facility operator to estimate the amount of methane generated.

But if the number of hogs declines, say because of a disease outbreak, flooding or hurricanes, then revenues would likely also decline.

What was said: “Perceptions are different from the realities of a hog farm. We’ll continue to be good neighbors and take care of the environment.” — Angie Maier, director of Government Affairs and Sustainability, NC Pork Council

What was not said: Maier is correct that perceptions don’t always square with reality. Staged photos of pink pigs in sunlit barns don’t reflect the actual conditions, which were revealed in a series of nuisance lawsuits in federal court. Photos entered into the court record showed manure-encrusted pigs crammed into dark quarters, the air peppered with flies.

Also omitted was any mention of the 4 million gallons of hog feces and urine that spilled from two farms — B&L and DC Mills — into waterways and wetlands last year. The B&L spill killed at least 1,000 fish.

Conspicuous by their absence was any note that five juries in a series of federal hog nuisance trials heard also disagreed that many of Smithfield’s hog farms are good neighbors. Those juries returned verdicts in favor of the neighbors of the offending farms, and awarded millions of dollars in damages. The federal appeals court also agreed with the jurors, with conservative Justice Harvie Wilkinson III, writing for the majority opinion:

“I am also not so naive as to imagine that hog farming could ever be an antiseptic enterprise. But the record here reveals outrageous conditions at Kinlaw Farms” — the first of dozens of Smithfield’s operations under scrutiny.

“It is past time to acknowledge the full harms that the unreformed practices of hog farming are inflicting,” Wilkinson wrote. “At the end of all this wreckage lies an uncomfortable truth,” Wilkinson wrote. “These nuisance conditions were unlikely to have persisted for long — or even to have arisen at all — had the neighbors of Kinlaw Farms been wealthier or more politically powerful.”

Policy Watch has repeatedly asked Simmons, Smithfield and Dominion to provide data to show the extent of methane capture and leakage. Simmons has not returned requests by email or telephone; in their responses, neither Smithfield and Dominion has answered the question.

Application withdrawn for giant poultry farm in Chatham County

A large poultry farm was proposed to be built on this 64-acre tract along Old US 421 near Goldston in Chatham County. However, that project is now in doubt because a USDA loan application that would have helped pay for the operation has been withdrawn. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

A USDA loan application for a proposed chicken farm near Goldston in Chatham County has been withdrawn, raising questions of whether the enormous operation will be built.

Policy Watch learned of the withdrawal after asking the USDA for its final environmental assessment of the project.

That assessment was being prepared, but will not be completed now that the agency is not backing the loan.

The USDA representative said she could not provide a copy of the withdrawal request because of privacy reasons.

Because of restrictive state and federal disclosure policies, the farmer’s name was redacted from public documents. However, some of the redactions were poorly done, revealing the farmer’s name as Kyle Jackson Fields.

He already raises more than 100,000 birds in three barns on nearby Bear Creek Road for Mountaire Farms, according to Chatham County property records.

Fields was seeking a loan to build four barns, each 66 feet by 400 feet, and capable of holding 40,000 broilers each, which he would also raise for Mountaire. The company has a large slaughter facility 10 miles away in Siler City.

Because the farm would rotate its flocks, Fields could have raised as many as 750,00 broilers each year.

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency is in charge of the loan. The amount is not specified in public documents, but federal policy caps guaranteed operating loans at $1.75 million. The USDA offers FSA guaranteed loans to lenders that work with farmers who can’t borrow from conventional banks.

The farm would have been built on property owned by Watson Place, LLC, whose manager is State Sen. Tom McInnis of Richmond County. Most poultry farms in the state aren’t required to register or obtain a permit from the NC Department of Environmental Quality, so it’s possible that the farm could still be built, but without a federally backed loan.

Perdue Farms allegedly retaliated against Robeson County chicken farmer for publicizing sick, dying birds

For 25 years, Rudy Howell of Robeson County made a living by raising chicks as a contract grower for Perdue Farms, one of the nation’s largest poultry producers. He had previously won “Top Producer of the Year” several times. But last summer, Howell invited environmental and animal welfare advocates to his farm to document Perdue’s allegedly poor sanitation practices, as well as his public health concerns regarding the sick and dying hatchlings he received from the company.

Perdue suddenly severed his contract. Howell closed his farm.

Now according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Howell says Perdue retaliated against him for openly contradicting the company’s marketing promises of a kinder, gentler and healthier chicken.

Perdue’s attorney did not respond to an email from Policy Watch seeking comment. But according to the legal complaint, Perdue officials cited Howell for giving four dying chicks to a videographer who wanted to rescue them; by doing so, Perdue alleged that Howell in effect took company property without permission.

The company also alleged that Howell allowed outsiders on his farm, in violation of biosecurity protocols. However, the outsiders — two riverkeepers, Larry Baldwin and Jeff Currie, as well as two animal rights advocates — dressed in personal protective gear that Howell had requested from Perdue — and that the company reportedly gave him.

In the complaint, Howell alleges that Perdue often supplied moldy feed for the chicks, delivered chicks in filthy trays and failed to sanitize trailers and catch machines, which could have cross-contaminated his farm.

In addition, Howell said the company overstuffed transport cages and “willfully dropped chickens on their head during weighing.” The same day the birds were dropped on their head, a Perdue representative reportedly told Howell to “Remember, chickens have feelings,” said Amanda Hitt, attorney with the Government Accountability Project. The firm specializes in whistleblower litigation and is representing Howell.

Howell reportedly told Perdue officials, as well as the USDA, about the problems, but nothing came of his complaints.

What’s unusual about this case is that it’s based on food safety and public health law, as well as traditional legal protections against retaliation. “These chickens are destined to be dinner,” Hitt said. “There are public health concerns.”

(Runoff from dried chicken manure into waterways also presents environmental and public health problems. In the northeastern part of the state, discharge from poultry farms is partially responsible for the proliferation of toxic algae blooms in the Chowan River Basin. Most poultry farms are unregulated and unaccounted for in North Carolina.)

Five years ago Perdue established an animal welfare policy to meet the consumer demand for livestock raised to higher standards. To achieve these goals, the company said it would transition to breeds of birds that grow more slowly. Selective breeding for rapid growth causes the chickens to develop leg deformities, suffer heart attacks or become immobile, top-heavy to the point they tip over and can’t right themselves.

“Perdue promised its customers it would meet the animal welfare consumers desired and demanded,” the complaint reads.

But the chicks Howell received were often so sickly that he had to kill 148 in just one barn — by wringing their necks and decapitating them. When environmental and animal advocates visited Howell’s farm a second time last summer, one chick was “lying on the floor unresponsive and breathing heavily,” the complaint reads. Another tiny chick, smaller than the rest, stumbled around with closed eyes and a beak encrusted with feces.” One of animal advocates rescued the lone surviving chick, named him Sweet Pea. He now lives at a farm animal refuge.

Contract growers, whether poultry or swine, have little to no independence in how they operate their farms, nor the profit they make. Companies such as Perdue oversee and mandate every aspect of the operation: the kind and amount of feed, the timing and type of vaccinations, the number and breed of chickens, even where and when to walk the barns.

The business is cutthroat, and not just for the birds. Perdue paid Howell based on ranking ratings according to a “tournament system.” Farmers are ranked against one another and top-ranked farmers can be paid up to 50% more than bottom-ranked farmers.

Since Perdue exerted such “extreme control” over the daily farm operations, Howell contends he can file the whistleblower complaint as an employee, not an independent contractor. “Rudy would say he’s been misclassified,” Hitt said.

There is merit to Howell’s argument. A 2018 Inspector General’s report for the Small Business Administration concluded that some poultry farmers were receiving federally backed loans even though their operations were essentially owned by behemoth companies.

“The large chicken companies in our sample exercised such comprehensive control over the growers,” that the loans were “apparently ineligible under size requirements.”

Since the companies required certain upgrades to barns and equipment, some farmers had to apply for SBA loans to cover the costs — even though company ultimately benefited.

In its sample of farms, the Inspector General found that company control “overcame practically all of a grower’s ability to operate their business independent of integrator [company] mandates.” Failure to comply with company mandates could result in a reduction of birds delivered, withholding flocks or contract cancellation.

An estimated $1.8 billion in in ineligible SBA loans might have been awarded to poultry farmers from 2012 to 2016, according to the report.

Sen. Berger announces appointments to Ag, Enviro committees, responsible for Farm Act, other key measures

Sen. Brent Jackson, a farmer, will co-chair that chamber’s Agriculture, Energy and Environment committee (Photo: NCGA)

Norm Sanderson, Brent Jackson and Chuck Edwards will lead the Senate Agriculture, Energy and Environment Committee this year, Sen. Pro Tem Phil Berger announced today.

The 14-member committee includes eight Republicans and six Democrats. The Farm Act, clean energy legislation, environmental bills and regulatory reform measures pass through this committee. For example, the committee took up part of a 2019 bill that would have allowed local governments to dump toxic electronics in landfills; it failed. While under GOP leadership, the committee has previously supported relaxing regulations on hog farms  and opposed oversight of the proliferation of poultry operations, most of which operate essentially unchecked.

Republicans: Lisa Stone Barnes, Jim Burgin, David Craven, Steve Jarvis, Tom McInnis, Paul Newton, Dean Proctor and Bob Steinburg

Democrats: Don Davis, Toby Fitch, Michael Garrett, Jeff Jackson, Natalie Murdock and DeAndrea Salvador

Berger also appointed members to the Appropriations on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources, which oversees budget recommendations in those areas. That includes the NC Department of Environmental Quality, whose budget lawmakers have decimated over the past decade.

Republicans: Chairmen Norman Sanderson, Todd Johnson and Chuck Edwards; members Lisa Stone Barnes, Tom McInnis and Paul Newton,

Democrats: Natasha Marcus, Julie Mayfield, Mujtaba Mohammed, and DeAndrea Salvador