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Disaster relief bill includes money to buy out vulnerable swine farms

This map shows the location of swine farms in Duplin County, home of more than 2 million hogs, compared with 100-year flood plains. (Map: Lisa Sorg, based on swine farm data from NC DEQ and FEMA flood maps)

A chronically underfunded program to buy out swine farms in the 100-year flood plain received another $5 million as part of a $280 million disaster relief package that passed unanimously in the House last night.

The money includes appropriations to state agencies for mitigation and resiliency, as well as local government loans to help communities damaged by Hurricanes Dorian, Florence or Matthew, as well as Tropical Storm Michael.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass.

Depending on the cost to buy out the farms, which is based in part on the price per pound of live hogs, the funds will chip away at the backlog of concentrated animal feeding operations in the 100-year flood plain. Last year, when the state relaunched the moribund buyout program, $5 million covered the purchase of five to eight farms, according to state agriculture department figures. At the time, 45 to 62 active swine farms were located within the most flood-prone areas. 

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Duplin County, home of more than 2 million hogs, introduced the buyout amendment to the original bill.

The buyout program launched in 1999, after Hurricane Floyd, Dennis and Irene hammered the state. After four buyout rounds totaling nearly $19 million for 43 farms, the legislature stopped funding the program in 2007. More than 100 farmers who wanted to participate in the buyout program couldn’t.

But Hurricane Florence was a game-changer: Rising water flooded 46 lagoons and another 60 nearly overtopped. Last year the NC Department of Agriculture secured $5 million to restart the buyouts, split between federal and state funds.

The buyout funds are used to close lagoons, decommission farms, purchase swine production and development rights, and establish conservation easements in areas prone to flooding. The applications are ranked based on several criteria: the facility’s history of flooding, distance to a water supply or high-quality waters, structural condition of the lagoons and the elevation of the hog barns and lagoon dikes to the 100-year flood plain.

The program is voluntary and intended to reduce environmental damage, particularly to waterways, from inundated lagoons. The farmers can still plant row crops on that land or raise livestock on pasture.

At a legislative committee meeting held shortly after Hurricane Florence, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said he opposed further buyouts unless existing farms could move out of the floodplain or those on higher ground could expand. Both are currently prohibited under a 20-year moratorium on industrialized hog farms that rely on an outdated lagoon-and-sprayfield system of managing the millions of gallons of feces and urine.

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