Back in the 1970s, there was a game show, $25,000 Pyramid, in which contestants used odd clues to guess a category they had in common . To refresh your memory, let’s play a quick round.
The clues: Leather boots. A baby. An iPhone. A swine farm.
The category: Things that shouldn’t be in a 100-year floodplain.
There are now 42 fewer industrialized swine farms in North Carolina’s floodplains than in 1999, because of a state program to buy them out.
And of those 42 farms, 32 of them would have likely flooded in Hurricane Matthew and could have spilled swine waste into sensitive waterways.
“We were successful in identifying the farms at greatest risk,” said David Williams, deputy director of the state Division of Soil and Water Conservation, before a legislative commission on agriculture and forestry last week.
The Swine Buyout Program launched in 1999, the year three hurricanes — Floyd, Dennis and Irene — pounded eastern North Carolina, flooding dozens of swine farms. Under the program, the state solicits bids from pork farmers whose operations lie within the 100-year floodplain. The state selects the farms based on their propensity to flood and their proximity to key waterways.
Then using grant money, the state buys out the farmer, who relinquishes his swine production rights and agrees to allow a conservation easement on the property. The price for the farm is based on the dollar per pound of the hogs’ live weight.
Converting these industrialized hog operations into pasture or forest reduced the threat to water quality and the financial risk to the farmers, who would have to rebuild after the disaster.
The state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund awarded a total of $18.7 million in grants to state agriculture department’s program in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2007. The federal government kicked in another $941,000 to help decommission the lagoons on participating properties.
But even $19 million didn’t meet the demand: 138 hog producers applied for the program — worth $100 million in requests — but there was only enough funding for 43 buyouts.
Those buyouts, which occurred in 15 counties, resulted in the closure of 103 waste lagoons, and essentially removed 60,000 hogs from production in the floodplain. The last three lagoons are expected to close next year.
The money was used to buy the swine production and development rights, close the lagoons and hog houses, and install conservation practices, such as 100-foot forested stream buffers, on the property.
Williams said the state pumped out the lagoons, which could still be used as water storage ponds. The waste was applied to farmland. Farmers are then allowed to graze animals on pasture land, grow row crops or plant trees.
Initially, the bid prices were low. In 1999, the trifecta of hurricanes so badly damaged the farms that operators had to choose whether to rebuild or allow themselves to be bought out. Most chose the latter, at about 85 cents per pound of live hog.
But by the fourth grant cycle in 2007-08, the price per pound had nearly doubled.
Although Williams has been unavailable for follow up questions, the lack of new funding for the program could present problems. There are still 12 farms in the flood plain that could qualify for a buyout. As the climate changes, so could the boundaries of the flood plain. More farms could wind up in flood prone areas because of extreme weather and overall pattern changes.
“This is not a recovery effort,” Williams said, but a program “to prevent catastrophes the next time there is a flood event.”
And that could happen sooner than later.
REP. JIMMY DIXON: MAD AT THE MEDIA
At the same meeting, State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, advised the press on the proper rules of stenography. “We won’t see any media coverage of this meeting because it’s good news.”
He lambasted the Fourth Estate for, in his view, failing to vilify the environmental advocates who want industrialized hog farms to stop polluting the waterways. “It’s disgusting,” Dixon said, seguing into a defense of gestation crates.
Pregnant sows are confined to these crates, which are so small the pigs can’t turn around, for the duration of their pregnancy, even their entire adult life. But Dixon seemed unfazed by the cruelty of these living conditions: “Agriculture can’t stand for government or special interest groups meddling in our proven production methods.”