The Essence of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

January 27, 2017

By John Benhart ’19

In the midst of a charged atmosphere on campus this fall, with student conversations and contentions including politics, environment and equality, our Bass Connections team set out one Saturday to travel to the Duke Carbon Offsets Initiative’s waste-to-energy project on Loyd Ray Farms. With the backdrop of the cacophony on campus, this trip was a relief. However, before the trip, I did not fully appreciate the meaning it would take on for me.

Loyd Ray Farms

On that day, and throughout the rest of this semester, our class has managed to shift its focus away from urban bustle back to the rural, which is sometimes overlooked at Duke. The visit to Loyd Ray Farms was the first time I truly appreciated this.

The farm and others like it have been a focus of our Bass Connections team, although I did not grasp the essence of a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) and its accompanying waste until actually visiting one.

CAFOs are huge operations and can be painted as inhumane, impersonal economic machines. Likewise, I previously viewed them as such. I had seen plenty of pictures, studied the environmental and health impacts and regulations of CAFOs and even learned how the waste-to-energy process worked. So, I assumed that I had already been exposed to all that was important about CAFOs through our class. 

Still, as our car progressed further out into the country and finally rolled down the farm’s long driveway, I could not help but become excited. I felt a vague anticipation, something that had been building over our long drive through the scenic, more rural parts of North Carolina. In the open fields, bright sunshine, and woods interspersed with barns and hay, I saw a CAFO as holding larger significance, not just as an out-of-the-frying-pan-and-into-the-fire institution that gave an economic solution but created pollution and health hazards, as CAFOs were known back on Duke’s campus. Instead, Loyd Ray Farms and other operations near it appeared to be fully integrated into the setting, a part of what defines rural North Carolina.

With this realization in mind, touring the farm itself was exhilarating. I could see the gigantic waste lagoons first-hand, hear the squeals of hogs and occasional rustle of feed as it fell from the silos in front of each barn and smell the imprint of the waste upon the air and community. And in a weird way, the CAFO felt neither entirely natural nor totally alien. Loyd Ray Farms felt like it just was—a product of the economic and world conditions that surrounded it and no more, no less. This concept was powerful, as it simultaneously displayed the malleability of the CAFO system and also how much the CAFO had become integrated as omnipresent and ordinary in North Carolina. This cultural hurdle is one which I am particularly excited for our group to tackle.

We have talked as a group about ways to modify the current system, such as implementing waste-to-energy technology, in order to lessen the environmental and health damages of the CAFO. Alternatively, we have even suggested ways to fundamentally switch the swine industry away from CAFOs altogether. But a growing theme within each of these categories is how we will relate our solutions to the people and culture to whom they are targeted. In exploring the definition of a CAFO in North Carolina, we inherently have had to understand communities so different from Duke. This has shifted our group perspective outward, together.

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