A comprehensive exploration of North Carolina's pig production industry

and its varied impact on communities and the environment . . .

Photograph of Taylor Holbrooks

By: Taylor Holbrooks

For decades, North Carolina has remained at the top of the nation’s charts for pork production, dating back to the late 1980s and '90s, it is currently ranked third nationally. Mega facilities that house thousands of pigs have cropped up throughout the eastern portion of the state. The hog industry quickly became a booming market, sustaining 44,000 jobs and generating $10 billion in economic output. North Carolina exports a quarter of its pork to some of the largest foreign markets such as China and Mexico.

Due to agricultural heritage and fertile land, the pork industry remains an economic engine that few are eager to scrutinize. However, the hog industry has not repainted the picture of modern agriculture without tangling itself in litigation and regulation. Harmful and unethical practices allow this industry to continue to produce at unprecedented rates and leave a trail of waste in its wake. In an attempt to create energy from the waste produced, pig’s blood, urine, and feces are stored in industrial-sized lagoons on each farm. The stench is noxious, and it can be smelled from miles away. Community members board up windows to escape the smell in their homes and many have filed lawsuits against local pork production facilities. When the lagoons’ waste is breaching capacity, it is sprayed onto nearby fields to “ increase land fertility,” which has been deemed good for the environment. Smithfield Farms claims that their waste management system is “state of the art.” In the event of heavy rainfall, lagoons are susceptible to overflowing and distributing excrement throughout the surrounding area. People living in the area suffer high risk of health defects due to the pollution that permeates the area’s air and waterways.

Number of lagoons on a pig farm in 1985 compared to 2022

The population of pigs in North Carolina more than tripled since 1985, and the transition into industrial-sized farms sent agriculture practices spiraling. The overuse of antibiotics to promote weight gain in livestock has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be found not only in the air surrounding hog facilities, but also in the community members in the surrounding area. The poor animal welfare practices on pig farms across the state have uncovered the crowded, filthy conditions that the pigs are raised in, which do not compare to the violence the pigs will endure in order to be killed. Pigs who are born and raised on pork production farms are killed after 20 to 24 weeks of life. For most of their lives they are kept in high-density pens where each 300lb pig has one square meter of space. Pigs are highly-intelligent creatures, they are able to categorize objects, hold a perception of time, socialize, demonstrate evidence of self-awareness, and form understandings of their human counterparts. To perform at this level of cognitive ability, it is necessary for pigs to be mentally stimulated, roam, and have the ability to form connections.

The aspiration to provide the life that pigs deserve is what motivates animal-activists like Anna O’Neal, founder and owner of Jenna and Friends Animal Sanctuary. O’Neal describes the sanctuary as a microsanctuary, but its impact is far from “micro.” The microsanctuary model focuses on providing homes for typically farmed species and the sanctuary is run with the no intent of exploiting or profiting off the animals.

Sources for ArcGIS Map

“You don’t have to have a million dollars and 30 acres to do this. Anyone can do this.”
-Anna O’Neal

The primary goal of an animal sanctuary is to provide protection. A sanctuary can rescue an animal from an unideal living condition, harmful environments, or provide an alternative life to animals who are farmed for food. Microsanctuaries have revolutionized the possibility of animal protection and opened up a future where we can bring ethical and environmentally conscious practices to the forefront of agriculture.

Anna and Petey the pig in the barn

Anna O'Neal with Petey the farm pig in the barn at Jenna and Friends Animal Sanctuary on Jul. 11, 2023.

(Photo/Taylor Holbrooks)