Electricity From BBQ

If you live anywhere in North Carolina and probably Iowa you’ve probably seen the news stories about neighbors of a large hog farm in Eastern NC winning a lawsuit against Murphy-Brown/Smithfield Foods to the tune of $50 million.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to tour a farm in North Carolina that is using the waste produced by their hogs to generate electricity. It’s an incredible way to take a problem and turn it into something useful.

This is a little bit different post than what I’m normally planning on writing. Like many of you, I’m sick of politics and the last thing I want to do is to turn this into a political blog. However, in the words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, “There’s nothing more political than food.” So, with that said, I’ll try to keep this as politics free as I can with the promise to return to recipes and reviews in my next missive.

I’ll start this out with a disclaimer:

I wholeheartedly believe that for the most part farmers care about their neighbors and communities, and that the way they farm is built around being able to keep a roof over their heads, make a decent living, and take care of their families.

Recently arrived hogs at Butler Farms in North Carolina

Everybody Needs Farmers

Part of the problem is that we, consumers, demand that the food we purchase be available no matter what season it it, and at an incredibly low cost. As can be seen in the chart below, we actually spend less of our income on food now than we have at any time in the last 50 years.

Per capita disposable income spent on food in the U.S., 1960-2013
Obtained via: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/03/02/389578089/your-grandparents-spent-more-of-their-money-on-food-than-you-do

Putting it very basically, this means that corporations like Smithfield must work to produce food as cheaply as possible so that they can still make a profit. This also means that the farmers have the challenge of producing hogs on an even tighter margin.

Very Basic Economics

A company has three options for addressing the costs involved in producing a product:

  1. Raise the price of the finished product – In a culture where consumers are accustomed to their food being available cheaply, a sudden price jolt might see a company lose business to that of their competitor. In packaged foods, a sneaky reduction in packaging size might be able to accomplish this. Unfortunately, with meat, which is generally bought by the pound the consumer can see right away that the price has increased.
  2. Reduce the quality of the product – Obviously this has large potential repercussions with consumers especially in terms of brand trust. A noticed reduction in quality has the possibility of turning consumers off to a brand forever.and
  3. Externalizing costs – We’re all familiar with this. In the case of clothing and many other goods, this means outsourcing production as most of the time labor costs are the easiest to cut. In the case of food production this means resorting to cheaper methods of production like using less space to produce more product, i.e. CAFOs, or finding less costly ways to deal with waste products.

The Problem With Poop

One of the issues that hog farmers must address is what to do with the accumulation of the waste that the hogs produce.

This isn’t a small issue. According to an article originally published in Indy Week, “In one year alone, an estimated 7.5 million hogs in five eastern North Carolina counties produced more than 15.5m tons of feces…”

The waste is removed from the hog houses through the use of slatted floors that allow it to be washed down and pumped into lagoons. These lagoons are large retention ponds that hold millions of gallons of waste. Once the lagoon begins to get too full the waste is pumped to sprinkler systems where it is sprayed over fields.

The problem is that the stench from the lagoons and spraying can be unbearable, and sometimes the mist from the spraying can spread onto surrounding properties.

Standing on a lagoon containing 6 million gallons of hog waste at Butler Farms.

A Better Way

Instead of looking at the hog waste as waste, what if farmers started treating it like a resource?

Tom Butler, of Butler Farms in Lillington, NC, is using the hog waste produced by the 80,000 hogs on his farm to produce electricity. The picture below, uploaded to Google Maps by Mr. Butler in 2015, shows the layout of his farm including the lagoons, anaerobic digester, generator house, and solar panels.

Butler Farms

At the farm, waste is pumped from the lagoons into an anaerobic digester where bacteria break down the waste and produce methane gas. This gas would be produced anyway by allowing the waste to sit in the lagoons, but using the separate digester allows the gas to be collected and fed to a 180 kW generator that uses the gas as fuel to produce electricity.

The anaerobic digester at Butler Farms

The electricity produced by the generator, along with the solar array on site, is able to provide electricity to 28 nearby homes via the use of a microgrid system installed by the local utility and NC Electric Cooperatives.

This is not new technology, systems like this have been used on dairy farms. However, implementation on a hog farm is significantly less common.

The Butler Farms Microgrid

I surprised to find that I was unable to notice any smell of waste until I walked right up to the hog houses because the lagoons were covered.

While Mr. Butler did admit that spraying the waste on the nearby field did result in odor, he’s looking into how to turn the remaining waste into a revenue stream by mixing it, treating it, and selling it as a bio-solid fertilizer through the installation of a wastewater treatment facility on his farm.

This would mean that he would be producing clean water, and a saleable product. Many wastewater treatment plants already use this process to offset costs.

Virtual Tour


virtual tour.JPG
Click the above image for a virtual tour of Butler Farms


A Change in Mindset

While I admit that this method of electrical production is still being studied, the potential is obviously there for greater scale implementation.

What it may come down to is a need for a cultural shift in the hog farming industry. If farmers can make money off of making these changes to their methods of production it becomes a no-brainer. In the meantime, I think most consumers would probably be willing to pay a little more per pound if it meant buying a more environmentally friendly product.

Additionally, I think that it would go a long way to improve the relationship between consumers and the fantastic folks that work so hard to produce our food.

For Further Thought

The nuances associated with this issue could fill volumes. If you want to know more, I do recommend you read the Indy Week article as well as looking at the NC Pork Council’s web page. Even better, talk to a hog farmer. Everyone needs to know where their food comes from.

Finally, to reiterate, this isn’t an indictment of farmers or the industry, this is just a look at a way that maybe we can change the how things are done for the better.

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