By Catherine Clabby
Until recently, Mary and Terry Marshall shared the same pretty vision of their retirement.
The Surry County couple would dwell in the roomy house they built 30 years ago on 16 acres of family land off Ellis Hardy Road, a byway named for Mary’s grandfather.
“We intended to live in our house until they wheeled us out the front door. That was home,” Mary Marshall said of their spread in Shoals, a community rich in natural beauty and public trails at the Yadkin River and nearby Pilot Mountain State Park.
But that changed after big chicken barns, concentrated animal feeding operations, were built on property about 1,000 feet from the Marshall’s backyard. Four broiler houses, each big enough for contract growers to raise tens of thousands of chickens annually, showed up in 2014. Two more followed.
From the start the Marshalls could not bear the stench. Terry stopped keeping the garage door open to signal neighbors they were home. No more grilling on the back porch, tending flowers and, some days, going outdoors at all. Both feared they were breathing something harmful after the chickens moved in, especially after seeing particles floating in flashlight beams at night.
Angering some in their farm-friendly community, the Marshalls and other residents organized to urge county and state officials to force the owners of two poultry CAFOs in Shoals to trim their noxious emissions. When no help came, Terry and Mary got angry at officialdom and then, from the stress of it, at one another.
That’s when the former flight attendant and airline mechanic hatched a new plan. They shopped for property away from Shoals. Before Christmas, they packed their belongings and left friends, neighbors and Ellis Hardy Road.
“We realize that our problems were being forced upon by outside forces. We could either stay there and be miserable or make a change,” said Terry Marshall, who expects proximity to the barns depressed the worth of the property they left behind and plan to put on the market next month.
Living with big poultry
In a state where the number of poultry barns and people continue to grow, friction over the environmental impacts of CAFO-scale chicken farms could expand too. So far in this conflict, government policy in North Carolina rests squarely on the side of the growers.
“They can do whatever they want to to,” Terry Marshall said. “They don’t have to tell anyone anything. They don’t have to get permits. No regulation or zoning can stop them.”
Andy L. Scott, the local grower who put up the barns near the Marshall home, lives off the grounds of the poultry CAFO but nearby. He did not return multiple phone calls requesting an interview.
But Robert L. Ford, executive director of the NC Poultry Federation, said poultry growers do not wish to be bad neighbors. CAFO operators are required to take steps to limit odor plumes leaving their sites and they do, Ford stressed.
“The last thing on their mind when they put chicken houses up is to give their neighbor a hard time. They have to live there too,” Ford said.
The growers certainly are part of something much bigger than themselves. Poultry production, a process that starts in egg houses and ends with plastic-wrapped chicken parts ready for sale, is now the top agricultural industry in the state.
North Carolina, ranked third in poultry production nationwide, is a top producer in the Broiler Belt, poultry-farm-territory stretching from eastern Texas up into Maryland. The industry’s economic impact here is $36.6 billion, says Ford’s federation.
This is primarily a mass-production enterprise. Large poultry processing companies such as Tyson Foods Inc. and Sanderson Farms are expanding their slaughtering and packaging facilities in North Carolina. A Sanderson plant under construction in St. Pauls in Robeson County could process up to 1.25 million birds a week for the boneless chicken market.
Companies contract with growers, who often take out loans to build barns to the company’s specification. They send day-old chicks to the barns, along with their preferred feed, and take market-size chickens away. The growers tend the birds in between and must manage the manure, they produce, an estimated 2.5 pounds per broiler, spreading much of it on agricultural fields.
Measuring the environmental and health impacts of the this state’s expanding poultry CAFO sector has been difficult.
“Back in the nineties we decided to regulate hog farms due to issues with waste management,” said Will Scott, the Yadkin River riverkeeper. “Poultry just got left out of that.”
For one, no state agency produces a public map of chicken farms’ locations or releases estimates how much animal waste or air emissions they produce. After Hurricane Matthew, state environmental officials said they knew that water inundated some poultry farms but could not assess how much waste escaped because they did not know where the farms are.
North Carolina does not require poultry CAFOs that produce dry litter, as most do, to obtain permits to dispose of animal waste in the vicinity of public waters, a process that would disclose their locations. Instead, poultry CAFOs are “assumed” permitted under the federal Clean Water Act as long as they agree to protective disposal practices required by the state.
Poultry operations producing dry litter are also explicitly exempt from state odor regulations governing hog CAFOs, said Tom Mather, a spokesman for the state Division of Air Quality. Like most farms, they are exempt from county zoning regulations too, including those that might require mandatory distances (setbacks) between a chicken barn and a home. (Voluntary setbacks created by the poultry federation this summer do suggest 1,000 feet.)
Farmers are required to take step to minimize odor and not pollute waterways. But the state’s right-to-farm laws shield farmers to lawsuits alleging that there are nuisances due to producing noise, odors or other intrusions.
Frustrated that many people are unaware of the growth of poultry CAFOs or their environmental impact, riverkeepers all over the state have taken it upon themselves to make them more visible. Using Google Earth satellite imagery, surveys from airplanes to other means, they are plotting the number and location of barns and calculating estimates of the waste they produce.
In the upper Yadkin River basin, riverkeeper Scott has counted at least 2,200 chicken barns, which together could hold 50 million chickens, he estimates.
Ford, the poultry federation director, said that describing poultry CAFOs as a health threat “is a stretch”. But whether some poultry CAFOs produce health risks on and off the farm is under study.
Studies have found that poultry farm workers are more vulnerable to respiratory illness. And research has established that people living near hog CAFOs, often people with low wealth, experience higher rates of some illness.
It’s been documented too that people living near CAFO-scale farming operations can also experience mental health declines and increased sensitization to smells. But does the ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, microorganisms, and particles that poultry CAFOs sometimes release into the air create harm?
An EPA effort to develop ways to scientifically answer that question started more than 10 years ago but is not yet done. Given the focus on deregulation the Trump administration is bringing to the EPA, the future of such research is unknown.
The Marshalls and other poultry CAFO opponents in Shoals say whatever carried odor from the poultry CAFOs, likely generated by a mix of decomposing manure and more, coated their throats and made them feel nauseous.
“It almost chokes you. It makes you want to stop breathing. It’s just horrible. There is almost a death smell to it,” said Mary Marshall, who stressed that she grew up on a tobacco farm and is no foe to farming.
Donna Bryant, one of the neighbors who the Marshalls left behind, still lives with it. Possibly because she lives closer to the poultry barns the Marshalls fled, some days the odor enters her home, she said, making her feel there is no escape.
To help cope, she keeps count on her home calendar. For 10 days in November, “the smell was really bad,” Bryant said. Seven of those days it invaded indoors.
If they could, she said, she and her husband would pack up and leave it all behind too.