a family farmer fights to chart a new path

a family farmer fights to chart a new path


By Will Atwater

Tom Butler has had enough and wants out. 

In 1995, he and his brother Robert took over the family tobacco farm just as the industry was declining. Both their father and grandfather were tobacco farmers, but soon after taking over that legacy operation, they decided to pivot away from growing tobacco and signed on as contract hog growers for Prestage Farms. Tom Butler said he and his late brother were seduced by the idea of making easy money.

The Butlers started out with four hog houses and based on what they were told about earning potential, they envisioned a life that was a far cry from the reality they experienced.

“You’d stay at home with your family and just be happy; you’d go to Hawaii twice a year on vacation with all the money you would have,” he said. “That was what was presented to us, it was [preying] on the American dream.”

Now, 27 years later, standing on a concrete floor in a 10-foot x 10-foot room equipped with fluorescent lights and metal shelves, Tom Butler and his son Will Butler have a new dream. 

“We’ll start out small to make sure we’re doing everything right and then we’ll get bigger,” said Will Butler.

He’s referring to his and his dad’s plan to grow oyster mushrooms in the space, which they say, is about 70 percent completed. The father and son team expects to produce more than 200 pounds of mushrooms per week in this room. 

Will Butler describes how metal shelves will be used in the mushroom growing process. The 100 square foot room is where the Butlers will perfect their growing technique before expanding to a larger space. Credit: Will Atwater

A key point about mushroom production is that the process doesn’t require soil to produce a crop. Once the room is ready, the Butlers will receive mushroom spores in individual bags containing special growing media or they will receive logs that have been inoculated with mushroom spores, according to Tom Butler.

If the experiment proves successful, Will Butler has a specific goal in mind to achieve before embarking on a marketing campaign designed to capture high-end clients. He wants to offer mushrooms to people who otherwise could not afford to purchase them in upscale markets or restaurants.

“I want to feed people first. I would go to farmers markets and I would cater to our EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) recipients … because not all people are eating these kinds of mushrooms,” he said.    

After nearly three decades as a contract hog producer, Tom Butler, 81, sees his new legacy as an opportunity to gradually step away from a business that he says has saddled him with huge debts, is harmful to the environment, is a nuisance to neighbors and one that provides little autonomy to contract growers, who operate at the mercy of corporations that have become increasingly distant.

Tom and Will Butler are on a mission to guide the multigenerational family business away from commercial hog production toward a more sustainable and environmental-friendly future that, eventually, the grandchildren – a fifth generation – could take over. 

The Butlers’ attempt to transition away from contract hog production coincides with recent events, which illustrate just how hazardous concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) can be for the environment and human health.

In September, it was revealed that White Oak Farms, located in Wayne County, had a lagoon spill that resulted in thousands of gallons of hog waste being emptied into the Nahunta Swamp.

A study released in March 2022, found that people who live in communities near CAFOs tend to experience higher rates of acute gastrointestinal illness than those who do not, and in North Carolina, the majority of folks who live near CAFOs are people of color. A different study, released on December 1, 2022, found that two percent of North Carolina’s swine and poultry CAFOs are in or near floodplains, putting some drinking water sources at risk.

The N.C. Swine Floodplain Buyout Program was established in 2000 to buy out and close swine operations located in flood plains. 

“It takes on average $800,000 to $1,000,000 to buy out a swine operation,” said David B. Williams, deputy director of the N.C. Division of Soil and Water Conservation in the state Department of Agriculture. “[Farmers] that have significant infrastructure invested, they can’t afford to just walk away from that. We have to overcome a considerable amount of debt for the farmer to be able to get out in many cases.”

That program is currently stalled and has not received funding to support more buyouts since 2018. To date, the program has spent more than $18 million to buy out swine operations and there are others waiting to apply if and when the legislature allocates more funds. 

A race against sludge

Tom Butler and thousands of North Carolina contract swine growers are facing the same reality: time is not an ally. Operating an industrial hog farm requires a way to manage hog waste which is generated daily and, most often, stored in a pit. Over time, the pits fill with sludge.

Annually, in North Carolina, 9 million hogs generate more than 10 billion gallons of waste, according to a document produced in 2020.

“The liquid waste is a small problem, the sludge is a killer. And it will eventually, if they don’t do something about it soon, cripple the swine industry in North Carolina,” said Tom Butler. “It will actually shut it down.”

In 2008, Tom Butler used grant funds to purchase covers for his farm’s hog waste lagoons. The covers trap odors and carbon dioxide and prevent flooding. Credit: Will Atwater

Butler Farms, in the Harnett County town of Lillington, is one of the few where the lagoons are covered with a tarp to minimize odors and CO2 emissions and to eliminate the potential for flooding, Tom Butler said. However, lagoons have limited storage capacity and Butler Farms is running out of space.

“We had no idea … we were gonna be handling the waste of a U.S. city the size of 30,000 people,” Tom Butler said. “A pig produces about five or six times more fecal matter and urine than a human does [and] the accumulation of the waste over a period of 27 years is where we are now.”

What’s more, there has been a moratorium on the construction of hog waste lagoons since 1997. This temporary ban was made permanent in 2007. Confined hog operations across the state are running out of sludge storage space and have limited options to remedy the situation without taking on more debt. Tom Butler and environmentalists argue that Smithfield Foods should be required to fund alternative technologies for dealing with hog waste.

Spraying is not the answer

Like many contract farmers, Butler Farms operates a “ feeder to finish” program — every 17 weeks the farm receives approximately 8,000 piglets that weigh between 45 to 50 pounds and in a little more than four months the animals are shipped out, each weighing between 250 to 300 pounds, according to Tom Butler.

To prevent lagoons from overflowing, a 19-inch buffer (also known as freeboard) must be maintained between the top of the lagoon and the liquid waste. To regulate waste accumulation, farmers use the lagoon-and-sprayfield system to periodically spray excess liquid waste on agricultural fields to fertilize the soil. Tom Butler planted his fields with Coastal Bermuda Hay, which he says can absorb as much as 300 pounds of nitrogen per acre.

Coastal Bermuda Hay is what Tom Butler uses in his spray-field program. He said Coastal Bermuda hay can absorb up to 300 pounds per acre of hog waste. Once it’s ready, the hay is bailed and sold for feed stock. Credit: Will Atwater

While spraying liquid waste on agricultural fields helps reduce sludge buildup, it adds nitrates to soil and contaminates the air. Beyond the odor caused by spraying pig poop on land, studies show that long-term exposure to particulate matter (PM 2.5), present in spray droplets, can cause cardiovascular disease.

“I’m a dedicated contract grower, and I have no intentions of hurting the industry or being a bad player,” Tom Butler said, “But the waste management issues that we have are atrocious. All I’ve done over the past 15 years is tried to get the industry to agree to move away, or, you know, do what’s right and adopt newer technology.”

Though spraying is legal, this process is highly criticized by environmentalists as it can create runoff issues, negatively impact air quality, and contaminate soil by adding heavy metals. The process has also generated complaints – and lawsuits – from neighbors. 

A 2018 study published in N.C. Medical Journal found that communities near hog farms had higher rates of infant mortality and deaths caused by anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and septicemia. The study didn’t directly link the deaths to hog farms, saying more research was needed.


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