First Flight: Where the Hogs Are

RCC Stanback Fellows Lucy Goldman and Francesca Cetta Reflect on the Research Flight of a Lifetime

LG: With my coffee cup gripped firmly in one hand, I raised the other to block my eyes from the North Carolina sun streaming through the windshield. The clock on the dashboard read 6:15 am. When I accepted a Climate Justice Stanback Fellowship with the Rachel Carson Council (RCC), I never envisioned that it would send me six hours south of D.C. to Eastern North Carolina to investigate factory farms in the region. Nonetheless, I was excited for the opportunity to learn first-hand about these Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Even better, I didn’t have to go it alone. My RCC Stanback Fellow partner, Francesca Cetta, and I were both invited by a local water quality organization, the Coastal Carolina River Watch (CCRW), to participate in a flyover of CAFOs. We had been working with the CCRW as part of our ongoing research into the environmental and human health impacts of CAFOs. North Carolina has been a focal point of our studies as it has the highest density of hog CAFOs in the United States. As Duke University students, Francesca and I also have a personal connection to the state. But in my time at Duke, I’ve spent very little time outside the Research Triangle, so our flyover destination in Onslow County was completely unfamiliar terrain.

FC: Out of farms and small Carolina towns emerged the Albert J Ellis Airport. The weight of fatigue was replaced with excitement and nerves. Behind the main airport, I followed a road to the private terminal. Lucy and I stepped into the small airport lobby, and Lisa Rider and Riley Lewis, the tenacious leaders of the Coastal Carolina Riverwatch, immediately greeted us with enthusiasm and warmth. Passionate conservationists, devoted veterans, community leaders, and pilots welcomed us into conversations regarding water quality in the county. Our research conducted from our Washington DC office only seemed to tell half the story. These conversations made it clear that the studies, articles, and reports I had read simplified this complex issue.

Riley Lewis explained that a key CAFO issue is transparency. Many people do not know how close they live to CAFOs and the effect of CAFOs on their health. Riley explained that hog CAFOs store waste in “lagoons” – cesspools of liquid and solid hog waste. These lagoons can overflow during extreme weather and pollute local waterways; this causes several human health and environmental problems. If the lagoons do not overflow, the waste is aerosolized and sprayed as fertilizer onto nearby fields. The smell and contaminants in this spray greatly compromise the quality of life of nearby communities.

Next, we spoke to Tom Madison, a veteran and life-long riverkeeper, who explained that the farmers in North Carolina do not have much control over their livestock. Huge corporations, like Smithfield, have demanded an unrealistic supply of pork, so farmers are forced to raise livestock this way. In addition to exposing how CAFOs destroy the environment and people’s lives, Madison has fought the North Carolina hog industry in court – and won. But despite numerous settlements and legal wins, the hog industry has not changed their harmful practices or their pollution.

After speaking with Tom, Doug Oakley, the South Wings pilot who would take me over the county, pulled me aside to give me the rundown on what to expect. South Wings is an organization that promotes conservation efforts through aviation. Doug led me out of the terminal and onto the runway to get into our four-seater plane. Larry Baldwin, a pioneer for clean water for decades and leader at the Waterkeeper Alliance, joined us to contextualize the environmental hazards, socioeconomic considerations, and a general overview of CAFOs in the county and state. I buckled into my seat, and we taxied to the runway.

LG: As Francesca boarded her plane, I anxiously awaited the start of my flight. Lisa introduced me to our volunteer pilot, Rolf Wallin. Soon enough, it was time to go. I followed Lisa and Rolf out onto the tarmac. My stomach somersaulted as I realized it was even smaller than I expected, designed to fit a maximum of four people. I climbed alone into the back row, donned my headset, and fiddled nervously with my seatbelt while I waited for Lisa and Rolf to get situated. Within minutes, Rolf had us off the ground. As we gained altitude, I gazed out my window and my apprehension quickly subsided as I took in the breathtaking expanse of green beneath me. I was so lost in the view that I almost forgot the purpose of the flight, until Lisa pointed out the first CAFO to our right. I stared at the row of white-roofed warehouses beside an unsettlingly bright purple waste lagoon. I barely had time to snap a photo before another popped into view.

FC: Larry, Doug, and I buzzed around below the clouds. Staying only 1500 feet up, I could clearly see stores, homes, and CAFOs. Larry explained that in Onslow County there are mostly chicken and hog CAFOs. He showed me how to differentiate between the two from the air, and as I surveyed the horizon CAFOs continued to appear. They were located 200 meters from a Target, in the backyard of a family home, and next to waterways. I reflected on my drive through those communities just an hour ago. I did not see any of those CAFOs. They were strategically hidden behind trees, far from roads, and out of the public eye.

LG: As we continued our flight, I heard Rolf over my headset communicating with air traffic control from the nearby Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. To Rolf’s surprise, we were granted clearance to fly directly above the camp. I looked out the window excitedly as we passed row after row of helicopters.

I asked Lisa if the military families lived on the base, and she explained that most live in nearby residential communities which we would pass by soon. As we neared these neighborhoods, I noticed clusters of CAFOs placed disturbingly close to houses. In fact, as we got closer, I observed that some of the CAFOs were separated from residents’ backyards by only a thin tree line. We circled the area and I took photos while Lisa explained that CAFO bacteria can travel up to 60 miles from the source, putting these communities well in range of harmful contaminants. I processed this as I gazed over several backyard pools located disconcertingly close to the CAFO waste lagoons.

As Rolf turned us back towards Albert J Ellis, Lisa and I discussed how many military families not from the area are unaware of how close their homes are to CAFOs. Further, military families are required to live close to the base and have little flexibility to move away from these dangerous contaminants.

FC: After an hour of countless CAFO sightings, Doug started our journey back to the airport. Nausea was starting to set in, so I was excited to be landing. A smooth landing and short taxi later I was back in the airport lobby sipping on a ginger ale to soothe my uneasy stomach. I began reflecting on what I had just seen – dozens of polluting and harmful CAFOs in the midst of communities. In my prior research, I found that Onslow County had 38 CAFOs. In just a short flight around a small part of the county, I saw about that many. It seemed wrong. I asked Larry, who knows all things CAFO in North Carolina, about this discrepancy. Larry almost laughed. The numbers that were publicly available were shockingly low. Duplin county, for example, is well-known as the “hog capital of the world” and Larry said that our cited 300 CAFOs was a fraction of the true number in Duplin County. The real number is closer to 3000. Larry also pointed out that while flying over CAFOs is shocking and enlightening, the true visceral experience is when you can walk through the inside of a CAFO and smell and see the environmental destruction. I thanked Doug and Larry as they left to go up on another flight. As I watched Doug and Larry take off, Lucy appeared back in the airport lobby, much less nauseous than I had been. We began reflecting on this eye-opening experience.

FC and LG: We were shocked at the magnitude of the CAFO presence in Eastern North Carolina, both the size of the operations and the number. Speaking with community activists throughout our flight experience highlighted the discordance between CAFO corporate executives profiting off this industry and the communities incurring the environmental, human health, and economic harms. We reflected on the importance of the work being done by local and national organizations to raise awareness about this critical issue. The RCC has spent decades partnering with local organizations to expose the environmental injustice of CAFOs and create a healthier, more sustainable agricultural system.

Thank you Coastal Carolina Riverwatch, Waterkeeper Alliance, South Wings, and the Rachel Carson Council for your work and for an unforgettable experience!

RCC Stanback Environmental Health Fellow – Francesca Cetta

Francesca Cetta is a junior at Duke University majoring in Economics and Public Policy. Born and raised just outside of Washington, DC, Francesca is acutely aware of the potential that effective policy has to save our Earth. She is passionate about working to end climate injustice through collaboration, research, and evidence-based policies.


RCC Stanback Climate Justice Fellow – Lucy Goldman

Lucy Goldman is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She is originally from the Bay Area, California where she developed her love for everything outdoors. She is passionate about climate justice, ocean health, and environmental legislation.