One of fifteen children, Elsie Herring grew up in a one-story frame house her father built in 1921 near Wallace, in eastern North Carolina. He worked in tobacco fields as a sharecropper until machines made his job obsolete, so the family subsisted by tending a large garden and raising a few pigs and chickens. “That’s how people survived back then,” Herring told me on a cloudy January morning. Eight inches of crusty snow had buried the area the previous day, a rarity for that part of the country, and we had pulled our chairs close to an ancient electric space heater that was fighting a valiant but losing battle against the wind and cold.
Like most of her siblings, Herring got out of the impoverished rural backwater as soon as she could, heading north in 1962, just after finishing high school. For the next thirty-one years she lived in New York City, working in administrative positions at financial-services companies. But in 1993, she came back to the part of the country she still called home. Her mother, then ninety-one years old, was becoming too frail to cook and clean house. The old woman also had responsibility for the well-being of Herring’s stay-at-home brother, Jesse, who suffered from Down syndrome and had difficulty walking on his gout-stricken legs. “You take care of your elderly loved ones,” said Herring, a strong, husky-voiced African American woman who wears her thick gold-blond hair in a style that resembles a man’s flattop. “You be there for their every need just like they was there for yours.”
That corner of eastern North Carolina had undergone many changes since Herring left. In the late 1980s a farmer who lived down the road built two metal-clad hog barns and dug an open manure lagoon in the field next to her mother’s house. The barns sheltered more than 1,000 pigs, part of the vanguard of the industrial hog industry’s invasion of North Carolina. In 1986, about 15,000 farms raised 2.6 million hogs in the state under conditions much like the animals Herring’s father kept around the place to supply the family with pork and to sell to local slaughterhouses for a bit of cash. North Carolina now raises more than 10 million pigs each year—one pig for every human resident of the state—but has only 2,300 hog farms. In the space of a decade, the average number of pigs raised per year per farm in North Carolina grew from 175 (a number a family could expect from 10 breeding sows) to 4,300.
Much of the credit for the explosion of the hog industry in the state belongs to Wendell H. Murphy, who grew up on a tobacco farm near the tiny town of Rose Hill, fewer than ten miles away from the Herring home. Murphy, who raised pigs as a boy, got an agriculture degree from North Carolina State University and became a teacher in his hometown. In 1961, he decided the farmers around Rose Hill needed a local feed mill. He took $3,000 in savings and convinced his father to cosign a note for an additional $10,000, and went into business, grinding grain at night and teaching during the day to pay the bills. Within a few years, he had built a viable business and realized he could increase his profits by keeping his own pigs and feeding them the grain he was selling to his customers. Eventually, Murphy closed his feed company to the public and fed all the grain he milled to his animals, raising more every season. He became one of the first businessmen to apply the contract-farming formula invented by the poultry industry to hogs. He bought piglets and paid neighbors a fee to raise his hogs to his specifications using his grain. Hundreds of farmers took up his offer of quick, risk-free money. In a little over a decade, Murphy Family Farms grew into a $600 million company, the country’s largest pork producer at the time. Murphy made one major tactical error in his quest to become America’s Boss Hog. He never added slaughtering facilities to his empire. Instead, he sold his hogs to companies that owned processing plants. When pork prices collapsed in the late 1990s, Murphy found himself at the mercy of vertically integrated companies like Smithfield Foods, who owned both hogs and slaughterhouses. He lost money, while the integrated packing companies reaped a windfall by buying pigs from farmers for far less than they cost to raise but passing only a fraction of those savings along to consumers. In 2000, Murphy sold out to Smithfield in a deal worth nearly half a billion dollars.
Murphy based his business model on the principle that “change is inevitable, and we cannot do in the future what we have done in the past.” But his success, like pork production’s rise to dominance in North Carolina, has a lot to do with another of Murphy’s talents: playing politics. First elected to the North Carolina legislature in 1983, he served five terms, working behind the scenes, doing favors, making generous campaign contributions to colleagues, and playing quid-pro-quo to get exactly what he wanted. Without violating any of the state’s ethics laws, Murphy helped pass legislation that rolled out the welcome mat for corporate hog production.
From an agricultural point of view, North Carolina lacked the natural advantages of major hog-producing states. Unlike Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, North Carolina grew very little corn and soybeans to feed its pigs. Most of the food North Carolina hogs ate crossed half of the continent on train cars from the heartland. By the time a North Carolina pig reached a market weight of about 275 pounds, it had consumed 800 pounds of grain. Simple economics suggests that Midwestern farmers like Craig Rowles would be able to produce pork at far lower prices than growers in North Carolina. But Murphy made sure that generous North Carolina laws and lenient environmental regulations erased the Midwest’s natural advantages. Companies—including Murphy’s own—received millions of dollars in state tax breaks to build confinement structures and outfit them with the equipment necessary to run a hog operation. Taxpayers subsidized the fuel their vehicles burned. The legislature stripped local governments of the authority to enact zoning regulations to control the rampant spread of vast factory farms. Murphy pushed hard to exempt these industrial operations from environmental regulations that outlawed discharging manure into streams and rivers. The bill passed the state Senate, but the House amended it with a provision saying that in extreme cases agribusiness polluters could be fined $5,000—barely a slap on the wrist. One theme linked all of “Murphy’s laws.” Even though they were often owned by multimillion-dollar corporations and housed thousands of animals in industrial complexes, each of which produced as much sewerage as a small city, the laws treated the big producers like the quaint family farms that once dominated agriculture in the state. A boon to factory farming, Murphy’s laws destroyed the lives of rural residents who suddenly found themselves living next door to hog factories.
Herring said she will never forget the day when she was struck, literally, by what living next to a modern pig farm would mean. “My mother, brother, nephew, and me were sitting on the porch enjoying a nice, beautiful Saturday afternoon—sunny, not too hot, a nice breeze. The farmer drove by on his tractor. A few minutes later we heard this strange bursting noise and a whooshing sound.” A device that looked like a giant lawn sprinkler began slinging liquefied manure high into the air over the field next door. “We were wondering what was going on, and all of a sudden that smell just slapped you in the face. My mother thought she could tough it out. She had grown hogs, she said. But this was nothing like what was on the ground when you smelled hogs in those days. Eventually, she couldn’t take it, so we came inside.”
That first Saturday set a pattern. Because of the proximity of the spray field and the prevailing winds, liquid manure drizzled down on Herring’s property at least three days a week, and occasionally for two weeks nonstop, day and night. “In the summertime when there’s a south wind it brings that stuff right over top of us,” Herring said. “If you’re outside, you have to breathe that stuff. Nine times out of ten, it’s going to blow right on you. So we can’t go outside. We don’t open our windows. We don’t open our doors. And we still smell it.”
Herring never knew when the miasma from next door would descend. She got in the habit of poking her head out the door and sniffing before planning outside activities, a strategy that worked only some of the time. One afternoon, she felt a mist on her face and realized to her horror that the cooling effect came from hog manure evaporating from her skin. She would start mowing the lawn, only to make a mad dash for the safety of her house. Laundry left on the line was often soaked. “It came over just like rain,” she said.
Herring experienced firsthand one of the immutable laws of physics, chemistry, and biology (trumping even Murphy’s laws): Pigs shit. A lot. A piglet grows from weighing about 3 pounds at birth—a creature you can cup in your hands—to a beast weighing more than 275 six months later. Estimates of a pig’s manure output vary from twice as much as a human’s to ten times as much. But even at the low end of that range, the 7.5 million hogs in the five contiguous North Carolina counties (including Duplin County, where Herring lives, which has more than 2 million hogs, the most of any county in the United States) produce as much waste as all the residents of the three largest US cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, combined.
With one critical difference. Those municipalities, like all others in the United States, have to treat the waste produced by their human populations. Hog farmers do not. In North Carolina hog waste falls through slats in barn floors to pits directly below—like allowing all of your household’s excrement to accumulate in the basement. Periodically, farmers flush the pits with water and then pump the resulting slurry into lagoons. The fetid mixture sits there for as long as possible, to allow as much of the liquid as possible to evaporate.
Even under the best drying conditions, though, lagoons fill and have to be emptied. In North Carolina, producers move the waste to fields through underground pipes. At the end of the pipes, nozzles called manure cannons blast the liquid as a fine spray high into the air to disperse it—the farther the better, to prevent the nearby fields from becoming saturated. During periods of wet weather, lagoons can overflow, so spraying manure becomes a race against time.
“It holds me prisoner in my own home,” said Herring. “You go outside, your eyes water. You start coughing and gagging. You want to puke. You hold your breath and run to the car as quickly as possible. It has changed my life entirely.”
Hog manure is poisonous stuff, and being exposed to it goes way beyond the “whiff of manure in the air” that industry supporters call to mind when they claim that rural folks like Herring are whiners. “Animal odors have always been part of country life,” they say. Manure in lagoons is entirely different from waste on a field or in a pile of composting straw. In its concentrated form, hog waste generates toxic gases, including methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide. It also harbors bacteria and dangerous viruses such as influenza, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus and contains residual antibiotics and other drugs, along with any insecticides and chemical cleaners used in the pig barns. From a health perspective, it might have been better if the neighbor had sprayed human sewage on Herring’s house.
The extent of physical harm that hog waste caused Herring’s family and neighbors started to become clear in the late 1990s, when she with met a University of North Carolina epidemiologist named Steve Wing, who had won international respect studying the health of people who had been exposed to radiation—laboratory researchers, power-plant employees, and survivors of atomic bomb blasts. The work kept him on the road constantly, from one nuclear hot spot to another: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Hanford Site, and Three-Mile Island. He lectured in Germany, Brazil, England, and Ireland.
Tired of constant travel, Wing hoped to use his expertise in occupational and environmental health to help residents of his home state, particularly the poor and African American residents of eastern North Carolina’s “Stroke Belt” (also known as the “Black Belt”), where Herring lives. The unusually high prevalence of heart problems, stokes, and chronic high blood pressure in the population made the area ripe for an epidemiological study. Wing hoped to discover whether living amid such a huge concentration of hog farms contributed to these health conditions.
Initially, gaining access to residents proved nearly impossible for Wing, a white outsider. “There’s a fear factor,” he said when we met in his Chapel Hill office. Casually dressed in a faded shirt and jeans, Wing is gentle-mannered and has slightly disheveled hair. “There is a fear that if you do something that would threaten landowners and employers and business owners or be viewed as a problem by those groups, you could suffer some sort of retaliation,” he said. “Eastern North Carolina is a region with a very pronounced history of Jim Crow and white supremacy.”
Wing had trouble making any headway until he met Gary Grant, the head of an organization called Concerned Citizens of Tillery, an African American community founded during the Depression when the government, as part of the New Deal’s Resettlement Program, provided small parcels on which poor landless rural residents could raise a bit food for themselves. Grant has earned a reputation as one of the most honored and well known advocates for environmental and racial justice in North Carolina. I met him in his cluttered office housed in a former casket factory. When I came to the door he motioned me in, but his eyes remained fixed on a television broadcast of scenes from the March on Washington, which had taken place fifty years earlier to the day. “I was there,” he said, with such authority that I half expected to see him get up and point to a younger version of himself among the placard-brandishing throngs gathered on the National Mall. When President Obama stood at the podium to speak, Grant, in the same tone of authority, said, “I got him elected.” Then, after looking straight at me without a trace of levity, he added, “All of us were I’s.”
A round-faced man who wears his white hair in a crew cut, Grant took me on a tour of his community, which suffered a wave of migration in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving an elderly remnant population of about 900. We drove past single-story boarded-up houses and decaying trailers, punctuated by the occasional clean, new ranch built by someone who had gone north and returned home in retirement. We passed over a muddy creek. “That’s where I was baptized,” he said. “It was a lot cleaner, then.” His parents’ granite gravestones dominated the yard of the house they had lived in and where Grant was raised. The brick schoolhouse where Grant taught for a dozen years after graduation from what was then the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) was boarded up and barely visible behind the vines and trees that choked the yard. We turned, and the road became smooth and black with fresh pavement. “Nice of the government to build this fine road for us, isn’t it?” he said, timing the compliment to coincide with our rounding a 90-degree turn. The road dead-ended a few hundred feet farther along at the locked gates of a gleaming, sprawling hog operation. “We always grew hogs here,” Grant said. “Just not two thousand of them in one building,” he added, backing up from the gate with its red No Trespassing signs.
Working through Grant, Wing convinced more than 100 residents of hog country to cooperate. “The study group was mostly African American, which is the opposite of most research,” said Wing. “White people have access to the medical system and they are more trusting of doctors and scientists. You have to realize how reluctant people are to go against the powers that be—the government, the banks, the school system, the Health Department. All these institutions are connected with the economic interests of the industrial animal producers, who also might be in the Sheriff’s Department, or on the county commission. These are powerful people in the community. All of those features discourage people from doing things that would challenge the status quo. In our study, we had to be very careful about confidentiality.”
Wing learned about confidentiality the hard way. When he first got involved in looking at health issues affecting neighbors of pig barns, the North Carolina Pork Council took legal steps to get access to the identities of the subjects of his study. “The Pork Council used the North Carolina public records statute to try to gain confidential information, claiming they had the right to it because we are a state university,” Wing said. The council demanded that Wing turn over all of his records, including all the information on the health and personal characteristics of the people in the study. They gave him five days to fully comply. If he refused, they said they would file an action in court. “Their lawyers wanted to see if we had libeled the industry with our study. I assumed their goal was to intimidate us and warn people not to mess with them,” he said. “The same scare tactic was used repeatedly by the tobacco industry.”
University administrators and lawyers ordered Wing to turn over the requested information. One bureaucrat told him that if he failed to do so, he would have him arrested for stealing state property. Wing was caught between moral issues and legal maneuvering. He had personally guaranteed the study’s participants that he would keep their identities secret. If he breached confidentiality, he would lose the hard-earned trust of the black communities upon which his research depended. “I knew I would not get a second chance with them,” he said.
In the end, he crafted a clever way out of his dilemma. He agreed to turn over everything the industry wanted except any information that might reveal personal details about the participants and where they lived. The Pork Council dropped its request for more information, but Wing stayed in the group’s crosshairs. Angry hog producers attended a presentation he gave for the state health department and peppered him with hostile questions. The atmosphere became so heated that a younger professor from a different university approached Wing and said that he’d been doing research into neighbors of hog farms but was going to drop it. “I’m afraid that if I have to deal with legal problems like yours, I’ll never get tenure,” he said, to Wing.
Later, organizers of a Sustainable Hog Farming Summit in New Bern, North Carolina, invited Wing to speak. A month before the conference, he got an e-mail from the university’s associate vice chancellor for government relations saying that staff in the university president’s office had written saying, “We have received several questions and complaints from legislators and others . . . about the Sustainable Hog Farming Summit.” Two pork-industry lobbyists had also contacted the vice chancellor. In fifteen years at the university, Wing had attended scores of gatherings with no reaction from the highest offices of the university. Despite the pressure, he presented his research to the summit.
To do his study, Wing set up sophisticated monitoring equipment at sites in sixteen eastern North Carolina communities. The machinery measured airborne concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, endotoxin (poisons released by dead bacteria), and particulate matter. Participants agreed to sit outside their houses twice a day for ten minutes each time and write down any symptoms they experienced. The results proved that breathing hog odor was more than an aesthetic annoyance. If they were outside during periods when Wing’s machines recorded high levels of hog pollutants, the residents experienced difficulty breathing, wheezing, sore throats, and eye irritation. They also had measurable declines in the volume of air they could inhale and exhale.
In a similar study published in 2012, Wing and his team equipped volunteers with devices to measure their blood pressure at the same time as his machines monitored hydrogen sulfide levels in the air. As the levels of gas in the air rose, so did the blood pressure of participants. Over time, such spikes can lead to the chronic hypertension so common in the African American populations he evaluated. “It’s obvious that this is a problem and it goes way beyond what these studies are about,” said Wing.
Over her decades in New York, Elsie Herring learned not to let anyone push her around, an attitude that can create trouble for an African American living in the part of North Carolina dominated by whites. After she maneuvered her mother and brother back into the house on that afternoon when manure rained from the sky, she called the police department to report what had happened. They told her that they couldn’t get involved and suggested that she telephone the health department when it opened the following Monday. She did, only to be informed that manure application lay outside its sphere of authority. She needed to go to Water Quality. The official she reached there lent a sympathetic ear but said he could do nothing. Try Air Quality. Air Quality listened to her complaints, but failed to act. Then she went before the county commissioners. She wrote to the Attorney General’s Office, the governor, the US Department of Justice, and the EPA. “Nobody would help me,” she said. Her efforts to complain about the stench that was ruining her family’s life did get results from one quarter, however. A lawyer representing the hog grower who sprayed the manure threatened to sue Herring and to impose a restraining order if she continued to bring odor issues to public officials. “If you violate the restraining order,” the lawyer wrote, “We will ask the court to put you in prison for contempt.”
In testimony before the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, Herring recounted what happened next: “The hog farmer’s son came into my mother’s house and grabbed hold of her chair. She was ninety-eight at this time, and he just shook her around, and he told her that he could do anything to me that he wanted to and get away with it.”
Eventually Cindy Watson, who represented Duplin County in the state legislature, responded to the complaints of Herring and other constituents by cosponsoring a bill that called for the phasing out of manure lagoons and placed a temporary moratorium on the construction of new hog-confinement facilities. Money from Big Hog had killed previous attempts to pass similar laws, but Watson and her allies got some unexpected help from the industry: A dike holding back the waste of 10,000 hogs in a lagoon the size of eight football fields burst, spilling 25 million gallons of hog waste. A knee-deep wave of soupy manure surged across roads and fields, eventually reaching the New River, killing fish and polluting wells in the worst spill in North Carolina history. The public was outraged, and Watson’s bill passed. But any celebrations were short-lived. The pork industry spent millions of dollars in campaign contributions and advertising in the next election. It financed Watson’s challenger in the primary and ran a series of negative ads against her. She lost, as did several supporters of her bill. Their replacements proceeded to gut it. For standing up to the power of the pig producers, Watson received a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award, and although the moratorium on new hog farms remained in effect (the state already had more than enough to satisfy the packers’ demands), the existing operations resumed business as usual, and the spray continued to descend on Herring’s house.
“There’s supposed to be someone protecting the air,” said Herring. “No one protects the air. We’re supposed to have clean water. Nobody cares about the water. Human rights, property rights, civil rights—all of these have been taken away from us. The whites get all the profits, and the blacks are the ones living with it.”
Like Murphy’s laws, environmental injustice of the sort that Herring complains about is one of the cornerstones of the North Carolina pork industry. Shortly after Watson lost her seat in the legislature, Wing published a paper indicating that factory farmers deliberately built big hog barns in areas with poor, black populations that were unlikely to complain. He showed that in North Carolina, a factory pig farm was seven times more likely to be in a poor district than a better-off one and five times more likely to be in an area with a large black population than a predominantly white region. For operations owned by large corporations, as opposed to individual operators, the discrepancies between white/black and rich/poor locations was even larger.
In 2001, Herring’s mother died after a brief illness just shy of her hundredth birthday. Herring continued to take care of her brother, who gradually lost all of his motor skills, and died five years after his mother. During her career in New York, Herring had built a new house for herself on the edge of the family property, but she’s never lived there. “I was living over here taking care of them, so I just stayed,” she said. Her house and property stinks several days a month. Mowing the lawn or hanging out laundry remains an iffy proposition. In 2011, the legislature passed a bill further weakening environmental regulations by allowing existing pig producers to upgrade their buildings without improving their manure lagoons.
Exasperated, Herring joined a class-action suit that eventually attracted more than 1,000 plaintiffs who announced intentions to sue players in the pork industry for monetary damages under nuisance laws. If bureaucrats and elected officials refused to protect rural residents of North Carolina from Big Pig, maybe the courts would. The litigants had reason for hope. A small law firm in the Midwest had demonstrated that neighbors could successfully sue pork producers and receive millions of dollars in damages.
Excerpted from "Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat" by Barry Estabrook. Published by W.W. Norton and Co. Copyright 2015 by Barry Estabrook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.