A wit once said there are three words that strike fear into a community: Here come pigs. Agriculture has changed dramatically over the past two, three decades. Once where ten families farmed, only one does now.

A wit once said there are three words that strike fear into a community: Here come pigs.  Agriculture has changed dramatically over the past two, three decades.  Once where ten families farmed, only one does now.  Dairy grade “B” and “A” operations were pasture-driven and fewer than fifty head.  Now, dairy farms disappear and the average herd size is nearly five times that, with herds upwards of several thousand head not uncommon, and rarely do cows see the outdoors instead kept in loose housing.  Beef farming has changed.  And so, too, has hog farming.  

Not too many decades ago it was possible for a farmer to raise a few head of beef, some grain and hay, and a few hogs, all for market and make a living.  Decades ago, hogs for home and market were raised by dairy farmers cheaply on milk separated from the cream.  Of course, back then, the markets were local.  A local butcher bought locally raised animals and sold the cuts in his butcher shop.  Grocery stores had their own butchering facilities.  Grain, cream, milk, all were sold locally.  Government regulations and economies of scale changed all that.

The small white shed is where visitors and packages meet employees at the Nelson County Pigs Cooperative, just east of Lakota.  The facility, two sow barns and a farrowing barn, are about a quarter-mile from the road.

Todd Erickson is the tour guide.  “People see the ‘biohazard’ sign and get a little concerned,” he said, “but people are the biohazard to the hogs.  Pig farming today is a very clean environment.  One pathogen can be devastating.”  Erickson is the general manager of the facility.  “We raise about 5,000 hogs.  The one proposed for Devils Lake will be about half that, about half this size.”

A large issue looms for Devils Lake, and on Wednesday, tomorrow, there are two public meetings for comment on the hog farm proposed by Daniel Julson and Taylor Aasmundstad on behalf of Grand Prairie Agriculture, LLP.  A permit has been approved for 2,499 pigs—2,079 sows and another 420 farrowing hogs.  There will be two barns, the sow barn and the farrowing barn.  Each barn will sit atop its own enclosed concrete manure pit.  The pits and the manure is what has caused opposition to the pig farm:  potential manure runoff and water contamination and smell, particularly the fear that manure will leach through into the Spiritwood aquifer.

As little as a decade ago the smell of manure in the spring and fall was expected in most rural areas with livestock, with farmers hauling away the piles in manure spreaders and the manure broadcast on fields.  The smell was more ubiquitous because there were more farmers spreading manure.  Economies of scale grew, the farmers got fewer, and the facilities larger.  Large manure catchments are unwanted mostly everywhere by neighbors, whether they’re for pigs or cows.  Lagoons especially had a propensity to overload and overflow in wetter than anticipated conditions.

Erickson stopped the car right next to, within arm’s reach of a large louvered vent and rolled down his window.  “Feel that?”  A breeze blew into the car from the vent.  “Smell anything?”  There was the slightest whiff of barn.  “That’s directly from the manure pit below this barn.  Ventilation fans constantly blow circulating air.”

“Up ahead are the fans for circulating barn air,” Erickson said.  “They’re thermostatically controlled.  Look, two are running now.”  Passing them there was a slightly stronger odor of barn with both windows down.

The only really strong smell was within twenty yards of the composting building, where carcasses are taken.  “We compost them,” said Erickson.  “Piglets sometimes are still born and occasionally a sow dies.  We start with chicken litter and then layer straw over the top.  The finished compost is landfilled.”

The manure pits hold four million gallons, two million a barn.  Drain tile circles each barn making certain that ground water can’t infiltrate into the pits.  The tiles drain into a tank and then a lift pump pushes that ground water into a lagoon that Erickson said rarely has water in it.  The drain tile system is checked regularly by the Department of Health to make certain no waste is seeping from the pits.

The manure is pumped from the pits twice a year and injected directly into the soil and not broadcast or sprayed onto the surface.  “We have more paperwork to apply manure than a farmer has for anhydrous ammonia,” said Erickson.  “We have to have a nutrient plan for the Department of Health; know what cover crops were there and what will be planted; and we have to provide soil samples.  We inject into 800 acres a year, 400 in the spring then again in the fall.  We have about 3,500 acres in rotation because we only inject once every two years in the same field. We put a pump in the pit and can push it out through a hose a couple of miles.”

“It’s done using what’s called an ‘umbilical,’” said Marty Haroldson.  “Liquid manure is pumped from the pit to machinery.  Lagoons are pretty much a thing of the past.”  Haroldson is with the North Dakota Division of Water Quality North Dakota Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permitting, and is very familiar with the permit for Daniel Julson and Taylor Aasmundstad and Grand Prairie Agriculture, LLP.  “The runoff is very minimal, if any, and there’s only about two days of any odor at all.”

Broadcasting manure with a spreader or sprayer is a common practice, says the Cornell  University Cooperative Extension, but it results in the loss of ammonia nitrogen, can cause odor issues, and increases the risk of phosphorus runoff. Mixing manure with soil or placing it below the soil surface mitigates these effects.

“And by the way,” he said, “we didn’t do anything special because you were coming today.  This is just a typical day.  A typical Friday.”

The proposed Devils Lake pig farm will sit over a “perched” aquifer said Haroldson, meaning the aquifer is between a layer of clays from above, and also separated by clays and till from the Spiritwood aquifer more than a hundred feet down.  The Spiritwood aquifer runs from the Canadian border nearly to the South Dakota border.  The pits will sit on a natural clay subsurface, just as the Lemnas Waste Water Treatment Plant in Devils Lake.

The lagoons have processed water for nearly three decades, with raw effluent flowing into the lagoon and treated effluent flowing into the lake.  There’s a layer of blue clay under the lagoons, said Joel Myhro, Devils Lake Public Utilities Supervisor.  

“The solids separate out during the process,” said Myhro, “and the phosphates and nitrates are removed.  The treatment facility was built for a population of 35,000.  I should be long gone by the time comes to dredge the bottom.  The state inspectors are always surprised by how little sediment there is because this works so well.”

The propose pig farm will have tiling around the barns to prevent infiltration into the pits.  It will have test wells monitoring the ground water.  Annual inspections will be done on all aspects of the facility, expressly to make sure the pits will not overflow.  And the permit does not “authorize the discharge of any objectionable odorous air contaminant.”  They will also inject manure pumped from the pit into nearby fields.

“We’re very heavily regulated and monitored,” said Erickson.  “But you know what?  That’s okay.  People think that we want to ruin the land and the water.  That’s not true at all.  We make our living from the land.  Why would we want to ruin it?  We don’t want to pollute at all.  So it’s all right that we’ve got so much paperwork and monitoring because that means there’s a lot of people, especially us, who want to make sure everything stays working.”

He did say they wish they could allow visitors because tours would answer a lot of questions and reduce the fear of pig farms.  But the risk to the stock is just too great.  When workers arrive in the morning, they put booties over their shoes to walk into the facility.  Then they remove their boots and clothes and shower before dressing for work.  They shower again before leaving for the day.  Access is limited.  “We don’t even allow in the owners anymore,” Erickson said.  “Workers can’t raise hogs or be around any other hogs at all.  If they go to a fair and walk into a barn and there’s a pig, it’s three days off work.”

“People and communities need to have their questions answered,” said Amber Boeshans, Executive Director of the North Dakota Livestock Alliance.  “Farmers and their families want people to know what they do.  The NDLA is a new entity of commodity and livestock organizations that have come together to help our farmers tell their stories of how and why they raise their animals. North Dakota pig farmers are very proud to tell their story of their love of our state and their daily care for their animals and their environment.” 

The meetings are Wednesday, at 1 p.m., at the Spirit Lake Casino and Resort, and then at 5:30 p.m., in the Lake Region State College Auditorium.