It is a CAVU—Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited—day in late February. Bright, clear and cloudless, the sky a polished glass bell—ideal conditions to defy gravity. I am watching US 74-76 peel past on the way to the Curtis L. Brown Jr. Airport in Elizabethtown. Driving the car is Patrick Connell, water quality field specialist at Cape Fear River Watch. Soon enough we will fly low over southeastern North Carolina to peer down at factory farms; the Cape Fear River basin has the highest concentration of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on the planet.
It’s a normal workday for Patrick; he flies up routinely to ensure the farms are in compliance with state regulations, doing the work which NC DEQ is unable to do, due to budget constraints—yet, I can’t help but feel excited. Flying has never lost its romance for me, and even when I board the cattle cars of modern airlines, I find myself looking out the window like a schoolboy, eyes wide at the sublime perspective it gives. As we drive Patrick briefs me on today’s mission.
“River Watch has always had an eye on the hog industry,” he says.” Lately, we’ve been putting more focus on the poultry industry because of its explosive growth.”
I’ve written about swine CAFOs before in encore. I’ve written about the heinous amounts of untreated waste they produce, about how the number of pigs in the state rivals the human population (both around 10 million).
That’s paltry compared to poultry. In 1997 there were about 150 million chickens in the state; in 2017 there were over 500 million. In the two-year period between 2015 and 2017, the rate of poultry barns being built in the state doubled. The main issue is the same as it is with pigs: Where does all the waste go? Dry chicken litter, mixed with sawdust, is often stored in fields uncovered for longer than the 15 days allotted to farms by the state. When it rains the nutrients (twice as many as are in hog waste) runoff into nearby creeks, and thence into larger waterways.
At the airport, we meet our pilot, Bill Kahn, a slim, soft-spoken man with a graying beard. A retired mathematician who has been flying for 47 years, he earned his pilot’s license two years before his driver’s license. Bill tells us a strong northwest wind will make the trip bumpy, so getting airsick is nothing to be ashamed of.
“Even professional stunt pilots get airsick now and then,” he says, presciently. We follow him to his plane, a sleek white Cessna 182 Skylane with a blue belly.
Climbing into the cockpit, I sit shotgun while Patrick takes the backseat, so he can move around to take pictures on both sides. Bill goes through his pre-flight checklist, then shouts “Clear prop!” out the window and fires up the engine with a roar. I’m grinning ear-to-ear at the array of dials and switches before me, my smile getting even wider when Bill lets me steer the plane with the pedals as we taxi. Our run-ups completed and cleared for takeoff, Bill takes throttles up—that familiar push back in the seat as the engine howls, the moment our little bird ship transitions into something airborne and leaves the touch of earth behind.
Bill levels out at 1,000 feet above the ground and begins navigating to the first waypoint, while Patrick cues up his GPS and camera. I gaze out the window in wonder, jotting notes.
“I never get tired of looking at this,” Bill says through our headsets, echoing my own thoughts. “It’s like a children’s picture book.”
Sure enough, the pastoral scene beneath our feet is lovely: tawny fields, with brown streams weaving through them, punctuated by occasional rippled blue moons of Carolina Bays like White Lake. Patrick shakes his head and laughs. “I wish I shared your perspective, Bill,” he says. Looking closer, I see what he means: long low rows of silver buildings, glinting in the morning sun, with the telltale coral-colored waste lagoon beside them. Factory farms. If they’re for poultry, each shed could hold 35 thousand chickens. From 1,000 feet aloft, they’re almost perversely pretty—cesspools of bright color against muted natural tones of the land. They are everywhere I look, a weird jellyfish swarm of toxic waste.
Patrick, eagle-eyed, spies something suspect, and Bill takes us down to circle for a better look. It’s green triangular field, saturated with standing water from yesterday’s rain. Waste from a nearby lagoon is being sprayed in shimmering pulses. “That’s a no-go in the eyes of the state,” Patrick says, snapping pictures. My eyes are drawn to the creek beside the field, where all that waste will go next, choking out all life except bacteria, which will feast on the nutrients and consume all the oxygen. Most of the ponds we’ve seen beside these farms are an unnatural fluorescent teal from algae blooms.
The wind is bad, gusting up to 23 knots, and our little plane is buffeted up and down like a roller coaster car without a track. I eventually succumb to the tyranny of turbulence. When Bill expertly drops us down on the runway at the airport in Clinton, I disembark with a little red bag half-full of my breakfast.
In the airport there’s a whole glass display case dedicated to Smithfield Foods, complete with packages of bacon, ham, a framed picture of the Smithfield-sponsored race car and a little pink pig wearing overalls. Raising pigs and chickens is a way of life for the people who use this airport; they are our neighbors. So long as they don’t break the law like the farmer we saw earlier, they’re not the problem. When multinational corporations, like Smithfield, Tyson, Butterball and the WH Group, who subcontract to farmers, can and do make millions in profits every year while our rivers run with blood and fecal matter, that’s where I take issue. The technology to process the waste better exists; all it costs is money, which they have. Why should a few companies continue to profit while our waterways, which we all rely on, continue to suffer?
After an hour we took off again and banked east. Rising out of the fields like a concrete megalith is the other thing we came to see: a new biogas facility Smithfield is building to capture some of the methane all that hog waste produces. Patrick explains, while it may sound green, when the waste gets discharged onto fields, the nutrients causing all the troubles are concentrated. A few fields over from the biogas facility, something else sparkles in the afternoon light: rows upon rows of black solar panels, thousands of them, angled south to capture free renewable energy from the sun. Our state is second in the nation for solar energy, a truly sustainable resource, which burns no fossil fuels and emits no greenhouse gases into our already-overloaded atmosphere.
As I gaze out over the coastal plain, at the glittering fields of solar panels nestled between the shrinking forests and festering lagoons, I feel more than ever the complex contradiction of being a Tar Heel. We’re doing some things so right, but others so very wrong. Bill points the plane toward the airport, and one of the last landmarks we cross before landing is Black River—a sable serpent meandering through ashen cypress swamp.
From a kayak, weaving through 2,000-year-old trees and grey beards of Spanish moss, the Black seems mighty, eternal. From our little plane, I could see it was surrounded on all sides by putrid pink ponds. It looked fragile, like a cornered animal.
The future of the creatures who need rivers—us included—seemed uncertain. But, damn it, we are human beings! If we have the power to overcome the pull of our planet, if we can hurtle through empty air on wings made of metal and dreams, and return to our beloved land again, we can change and improve how we treat our world. Change, like flight, takes effort; now is the time for us to make it.