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Sweet Equity: Ohio Valley Farmers Tapping Into Tradition



Eastern Kentucky’s steep terrain helps capture sap efficiently, explains Seth Long. Photo: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

When Seth Long first began experimenting with maple syrup production, he tapped hollow pegs called spiles into individual trees, collected drips of sap in milk jugs, and carried each gallon down the steep mountainside on foot.

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Now, Long rides an open-air buggy up muddy switchbacks to a 500-gallon collection tank from which translucent blue tubes branch out like arteries. There, gallons of sap accumulate from Long’s 270 maple trees before they flow through those tubes 900 feet down the mountain to Long’s grant-funded sugar shack. A shared-use reverse osmosis machine removes most of the water before the sap enters the evaporator to boil for hours until it turns into thick, dark maple syrup.

“Some of the sap is travelling 2,400 feet before it gets down to our evaporator,” Long said.

Maple sap flows through tubing on Long’s farm. Courtesy: Sydney Boles, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collecting sap the old-fashioned way, 14 gallons of sap was a big day, Long said. Now, three seasons into mechanized production, Long estimates his network of tubes, tanks and gauges can process 800 gallons per day.

“When we were introduced to the tubing, it kind of changed everything,” Long said. “Now I can get sap off that tree up there way on that hilltop and never touch it until it’s down at the evaporator.”

Long is the president of the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association, a year-old group of maple syrup producers hoping to put the sweet concoction on the map in the Bluegrass State. Long and his wife Sheryl run the 50-acre SouthDown Farm in Letcher County. The pair sells vegetables, jams and baked goods at local supermarkets and to individual buyers. Long said that in 2018, with 200 taps operating, the family produced about $3,200 worth of finished maple products. It’s far from enough to sustain a family, but it’s extra income at a time of the year when not much else is happening on the farm.

“What we’re doing here in eastern Kentucky with maple syrup is kind of calling back a distant memory,” Long said.

He and other maple producers in the region view maple syrup as more than just another crop. For them, it’s one sweet part of a new, decentralized economy that’s capitalizing on a long tradition.

Necessity to Choice

Appalachia has a deep history of small-scale agriculture, from regional crops like sorghum to the cultivation of heirloom beans. Historians say maple production in the Ohio Valley dates back to Native American communities tapping maples long before the arrival of Europeans. Ohio Valley residents regularly tapped maples for personal use through World War II, when sugar rations made syrup a valuable commodity.

“Some of that has been lost,” said Kathlyn Terry, executive director of Appalachian Sustainable Development.  “I’ve heard people share, ‘I’m not ever breaking beans. I’m not going to do it, because I don’t have to.’ And that was a sign of success, that you didn’t have to.”

Appalachian Sustainable Development is a nonprofit organization that uses agriculture as a means of economic development in the Appalachian region. Terry said she’s excited about the potential of non-timber forest products for hilly, forested regions like eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Maple syrup is a non-timber forest product, as are herbs, ramps, and mushrooms.

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commericial. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Rich Flanigan first produced maple syrup to give away as a wedding gift before he went commercial.

Terry pointed to a revival of traditional agriculture and a new appreciation for Appalachian cuisine, with books like Ronni Lundy’s “Victuals” giving renewed importance to traditional foodways. “Now we’re seeing people recognize, ‘Wow, we really lost something by stepping away from that.’ And in addition to losing the skills and the knowledge, they lost a connection to their history.”

SouthDown’s Seth Long agreed. “They did it in the old days out of necessity. What if we did it as an economic driver?”

Long’s maple stand sits atop an old surface coal mine site. Maple trees are faster-growing than some other local tree species, so they’re often the first to reach maturity on abandoned mines. Long finds satisfaction in doing small-scale agriculture on land that was once home to an extractive industry.

Long said even a few decades ago, most people dismissed farming as unnecessary in eastern Kentucky, but now there was more openness to a diverse economy. “This is something we can do that can make a real difference, that can have a real economic impact to the region.”

Big Potential

Northeastern states like Vermont, New York and Maine produce the vast majority of American maple syrup. Ohio produces far less, but still consistently ranks among the top maple-producing states in the country, with 708 producers reporting in the last agriculture census.

(Experts say there are likely far more small-scale producers, since they are less likely to be counted in official data. All that makes tracking maple production a particular challenge.)

West Virginian producers are building an agritourism economy around the novelty of the seasonal crop. And producers in Kentucky are just beginning to explore how big maple could be.

Shad Baker, the agriculture extension agent in Letcher County, Kentucky, was always looking for ways to make the best of eastern Kentucky’s hilly, forested terrain. He knew that agriculture in Letcher County would never be large-scale, high-volume production, but rather multiple niche crops that didn’t need much flat land.

“My mom worked in the mines,” Baker said, “And we had this old mining sticker that said, ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ Well, maple syrup is a great example of a bird in the hand.”

Although Kentucky and West Virginia are not traditional maple country, the particularities of the landscape make the crop an unlikely fit. The steep grade means there’s no need for the costly vacuum systems often used in more traditional maple states like Vermont and New York.

Sap flows when the days are warm and the nights are cool, so Kentucky and West Virginia have a longer production season and more frequent freeze-thaw cycles. And, Baker said, maples release sap in January and February, a time when a small farm operation wouldn’t traditionally be able to turn a profit.

“I always tell people they can put a TV in their sugar shack and watch UK basketball while they evaporate,” Baker said with a laugh.

There are downsides. Appalachia’s impressive biodiversity means maple trees are more spread out among other species, requiring more effort to connect them to one another. And critically, sap from maple trees in Appalachia has a lower sugar content than sap from trees in traditional maple country, which means producers have to spend much more time boiling the sap or invest in an expensive reverse osmosis machine. A particularly low-sugar season can devastate profits.

In rural Letcher County, with its population of about 22,000, Baker estimates there are about eight producers in the county alone who were on their way to having commercial-sized operations, which is generally understood to be 500 taps or more. As many as 12 more maple syruping as a hobby, and that’s fine, Baker said. Maple syrup doesn’t have to be for everyone.

“It’s better for us in the long run if we’re diversified,” he said. “That way if the market changes or you lose your competitive advantage, then you’ve got other things to fall back on.”

Baker teaches maple producers to make value-added goods like maple candy, which can triple the value of a gallon of syrup. His office has purchased processing equipment to help producers make syrup at scale without investing too much money up-front. He wants to encourage hobbyists just as much as professionals like Long. “Maple syrup could easily be 50 percent of the ag output in Letcher County,” he said.

Producers in West Virginia open their sugar snacks in a state-wide agritourism event. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Maple Days

Across the state line in West Virginia, maple producers have capitalized on maple syrup’s niche appeal to create Maple Days, a popular agritourism event where farmers across the state open their doors to share their knowledge, sell their goods, and spread excitement about the new industry.

At Flanigan Family Maple in Prichard, West Virginia, Rich Flanigan has scaled up from a few hand-tapped trees to a 470-tree operation, and plans to grow to 1,000 taps next season. A full-time forester for a land-management company, Flanigan processes sap on nights and weekends during maple’s short production season. In a full day, he could process up to 2,000 gallons of sap, or roughly 50 gallons of syrup.

At Flanigan’s Maple Day open house, visitors mill about, peering into Flanigan’s evaporator and gushing over samples of homemade maple pies and cookies. Flanigan takes guests on tours of his operation. But the most exciting attraction is the cotton candy machine, where maple sugar enters and puffy clouds of spun sugar emerge. The machine has paid for itself multiple times over, Flanigan said; the cotton candy is a best-selling, value-added product.

Value-added goods like maple cotton candy can triple the profit from one gallon of syrup. Photo: Sydney Boles,Ohio Valley ReSource

Indeed, fellow maple syrup producer Greg Christian comes up the hill from his own maple day event, a pancake breakfast in a local church. Christian has sold out of cotton candy and needs to buy 10 more bags for his guests.

“This industry is a labor of love,” Christian said. He works full-time as an engineer, but he says the profits from his maple syrup and honey operations add significantly to the family’s income.

For him, turning a hobby into a business was worth it for the joy it brought his family. He loved spending quality time in the sugar shack with his father, and was excited about sharing the experience with his young daughter as she grew up.

Taking Root

Seth Long says the next step for the Kentucky Maple Syrup Association is to get Kentucky added to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s maple syrup program, which would formalize the crop as part of the state’s agriculture output.

But following the 2017 national agricultural census, six states with higher production than Kentucky, including Ohio and West Virginia, were slated for removal from the program because their production numbers were too small.

Charmaine Wilson, state statistician for the USDA’s West Virginia statistics office, said production is growing “slowly but steadily” in the state, but West Virginia still accounts for a small percentage of the country’s total supply. Removal from USDA statistical programs is routine for niche crops.

Wilson acknowledged the loss of up-to-date data could be a challenge for producers. “Data is basically the info you need to put in a grant to justify getting money you need for a program. Data lets the legislators know how relevant a crop is in West Virginia. Data gives you that drive to get what you want when it comes to making laws.”

Maple syrupers in the Ohio Valley don’t expect maple syrup to single-handedly solve the region’s economic woes, but view the product as one part of a diverse, sustainable economy.

Maple syrup is “renewable, it’s long-term, it’s reliable, and it’s non-extractive,” said Letcher County’s Shad Baker. “This can’t be taken from us.”


CBD Uncertainty: Sales Soar But Science Lags On Hemp Health Effects



Colten Polyniak with hemp plants, which his family says helped him. Photo: Provided by Adriane Polyniak

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Inside the Bluegrass Hemp Oil store in Lexington, Kentucky, the CBD oils and lotions lining the walls have an origin story — a story of a family’s struggle.

“We took a huge risk, to be perfectly honest, because we didn’t know. We weren’t trying other people’s CBD products that were out there,” Bluegrass Hemp Oil Co-owner Adriane Polyniak, said.

Polyniak’s son, Colten, began inexplicably having violent seizures in 2009 when he was three. He was diagnosed with idiopathic generalized epilepsy.

Adriane Polyniak, posing by her products inside Bluegrass Hemp Oil in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo: Mary Meehan/Ohio Valley ReSource

“Essentially what that means is that he went from zero seizures to hundreds of seizures in a week, and the doctors didn’t know what was causing it,” Polyniak said. “We started a game called ‘pharmaceutical roulette’ — a lot of epilepsy parents are familiar with it — where we try a lot of different types of epilepsy medication to bring seizure relief to our kids.”

The various prescription drugs controlled Colten’s seizures but caused harmful side effects including hair loss, weight gain, and cognitive delay.

Adriane’s family saw on online forums that CBD might be of help for seizures. CBD, also known as cannabidiol, is a compound commonly sourced from the flowers of hemp, a type of cannabis related to marijuana. CBD doesn’t get a user intoxicated, unlike the better known cannabis compound, THC.

Adriane Polyniak’s son, Colten, who suffered from seizures when he was younger. Photo: Provided by Adriane Polyniak

CBD is commonly put into oils and lotions, but some novelty products like CBD in water and vaping CBD have recently been put on the online market.

When Kentucky began growing hemp under a pilot program in 2014, Polyniak’s family tried it. And she said it worked: Colten’s seizures disappeared.

The Polyniaks now want their business to help others with what they say are benefits from CBD.

“I think a lot of people are seeing relief with CBD products, and I think it goes a long way to prove the efficacy of what’s going on and what people are saying,” Polyniak said.

People across the country say CBD is helping them with a wide variety of issues including sleep problems, mental illness, arthritis, skin conditions, Crohn’s disease, and more.

But there is little to no scientific evidence to support these claims. Clinical researchers in the Ohio Valley say there’s still not a lot known about the substance, and some express concern that the CBD business boom is moving faster that the scientific research.

Adriane Polyniak poses with a picture of her now 13-year-old son, Colten. Photo: Mary Meehan/Ohio Valley ReSource

Lacking Research

“I think there’s a lot of concern amongst physicians, medical providers and research scientists like myself, that we’re  moving too fast without proper evidence or information,” said Dr. Anup Patel, Section Chief of Pediatric Neurology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Dr. Patel has been involved in several studies the past five years to look at CBD’s effect on various forms of epilepsy. The promising results of those preliminary studies led to a more intensive, groundbreaking study in 2018, where he worked with patients who have a severe form of epilepsy called Lennox–Gastaut Syndrome.

The study results showed patients saw a median reduction in seizures of more than 40 percent. Months later, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first CBD-sourced drug, Epidiolex, because of that study. It remains the only FDA-approved CBD drug.

Yet beyond epilepsy, CBD research is still very new.

“There is potential benefit for certain types of patients with seizures or epilepsy. Beyond that, we have no idea. There aren’t any good studies using CBD in other areas,” Dr. Patel said.

Dr. Patel is referring to the current lack of “double-blind” studies, which are considered the most legitimate among researchers. Double-blind studies are where both the researcher and patients don’t know who is and who is not receiving the drug being studied.

This helps control for the placebo effect, a phenomenon where an individual may experience benefits because of their belief in a treatment, not because the treatment is actually working.

Dr. Alex Straiker, an Indiana University professor whose primary focus is studying cannabinoids’ effects on the brain and eye, is one of many researchers who think the hype and media coverage surrounding CBD could contribute significantly to the placebo effect.

Bottles of CBD Oil on display at Bluegrass Hemp Oil in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo: Mary Meehan/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm on one hand, from the public and manufacturers, to market this. It’s kind of a bonanza mentality,” Dr. Straiker said. “The whole process of science is that you have to have multiple studies, and they have to be well done. A lot of [the claims] you have to take with a grain of salt.”

Studies Underway

In the meantime, researchers worldwide are getting busy. Human trials, some of them double-blind, are being conducted to determine CBD’s effects for a variety of issues, from cancer therapies to Parkinson’s disease.

Some preliminary CBD research has shown promising results toward CBD’s potential anti-inflammatory properties and how it affects brain chemistry, helping people with issues including anxiety disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and quitting tobacco.

Yet research on CBD’s potential side effects is also surfacing: a recent Indiana University study that Dr. Straiker led indicated that CBD could increase the risk of glaucoma.

West Virginia University dermatologist Zachary Zinn helped conduct one of these new studies. His study looked at CBD’s effect on three patients suffering from a  rare skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa that causes severe blistering and extreme pain.

“The improvements the patients noted was marked,” Zinn said. “It wasn’t, ‘Oh, I’m having a little less pain.’ It was, ‘I no longer require morphine for my dressing changes.’”

Zinn thinks CBD is relatively safe to ingest in small doses, and he’ll tell patients that if they inquire about it. But he isn’t actively recommending it to patients because there’s still little clinical research.

“To think that it’s going to be a wonder drug for all the things patients are reporting, that benefit in, is probably not going to happen,” Zinn said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not effective, but it equally does not mean that it is effective.”

Pushing Forward

The expanding Ohio Valley hemp industry is pushing forward despite a lack of scientific backing. Roger Hayes of Louisville-based Green Remedy, a CBD product wholesaler, said clinical studies matter to verify their products’ value.

Like other CBD companies, Green Remedy doesn’t make any claims about CBD’s effects because they’re not approved by the FDA. But he said the company doesn’t necessarily need clinical studies or the FDA’s approval to be confident the products work.

“The [studies] on what the therapeutic effects are going to be, that takes years,” Hayes said. “America doesn’t need to wait that long to determine that something that has been around for thousands of years that people take for various reasons — we shouldn’t have to wait that long.”

Many in this expanding industry, including Hayes, want the federal government to hurry up with regulation, regardless of studies.

The FDA said in December that CBD in food products is still illegal without FDA approval. Ohio stores selling CBD food have been raided.

Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles is one state government official in favor for approval of CBD-infused food because of the boost it could give to regional hemp farmers.

“We don’t want to regulate hemp to death in America now that it’s finally legal,” Quarles said. “Because a lot of folks are making investments right now, we’re hoping CBD can be marketed as a healthcare supplement.”

Yet some in the industry are more hesitant. Matthew Smith is a licensed massage therapist in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who uses CBD oil to ease muscle pain and arthritis in his clients.

“Anecdotally, there’s a lot of people that it’s helped,” Smith said. “It is possible that we’ll find that it’s overblown, or that there are a lot of cofactors that go into making it more useful, or making it more safe. There’s still a lot of science to be done.”

The first FDA public hearing on CBD-infused food is scheduled for late May.

Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Mary Meehan contributed to this story.

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Hemp’s Heyday: It’s Finally Legal. Now, Can Ohio Valley Farmers Cash In?



Doug Flight watches a camera crew shoot his first hemp product ad. Photo: Glynis Board, Ohio Valley ReSource

Inside Winkin’ Sun Hemp Company in downtown Wheeling, West Virginia, store owner Doug Flight tries to position himself in front of a camera crew.

His experience with growing and selling hemp spans years. But memorizing lines for what he says could be the first hemp TV commercial in the state is another issue.

“I know, I grow,” Flight says to the camera. “Is that it?” Flight asked.

“It’s ‘I know because I grow,’” someone with the camera crew said back.

Flight has wanted to shoot a regional television commercial for his hemp business since 2014, when he was one of the first nine people in West Virginia’s pilot hemp program.

But local television stations turned him down because hemp was still illegal under federal law.

Hemp is a type of cannabis that has a centuries-long history in the Ohio Valley, particularly Kentucky, where it was used to make rope and fabrics. Today it is used to make products ranging from shirts, protein powder, pasta and herbal remedies high in cannabidiol oil, better known as CBD. The oil is concentrated in hemp flowers and touted for benefits for anxiety, inflammation and other ailments.

CBD oil from hemp on the shelves in Winkin’ Sun Hemp Company. Photo: Glynis Board,Ohio Valley ReSource

“Unfortunately, the products haven’t been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so we cannot make any medical claims,” Flight said. “All people can do is go online and listen to other people’s testimonials.”

Hemp was illegal because it was considered a controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Agency, lumped in with LSD, heroin and marijuana, a related species.

The 2014 Farm Bill gave states the ability to start industrial hemp pilot programs to research the crop with strict regulations to follow, and Kentucky and West Virginia created their own versions.

When the president signed the 2018 Farm Bill on December 20th, hemp left the list of controlled substances, redefining it as a legal crop. That will ease large-scale production, and make growers eligible for research grants and crop insurance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For Flight, the federal legalization of hemp meant television ads across the Ohio Valley, banking opportunities, and much more.

“It’s going to allow me to get the message out about agricultural and industrial hemp, the products you can make from it, considering in the background I have been involved in growing hemp here for my fourth year now,” Flight said. “As of the last month, I’m being bombarded with propositions from merchant services, banking, all kinds of offers to open accounts with them.”

Along with retail stores like Flight’s, state data show Ohio Valley interest in growing hemp has shot up dramatically.

The Kentucky Department of Agriculture says grower applications approved for 2019 almost quintupled from 2018, from 210 to 1035 permits issued. In West Virginia, approved grower applications increased by four times on a smaller scale in 2019, from 46 to 199 permits.

Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

Overall, Kentucky officials approved 42,086 acres for hemp harvest, the most in the nation, and a large leap from the 16,100 acres approved last year. Colorado, the state with the second largest amount of approved acres for 2019, has 31,670 acres.

Regional advocates say hemp’s new, legal status is driving the sharp increase in interest. But multiple hurdles, from planting to state policy, still remain.

Growing Pains

The USDA says the U.S. hemp market was worth $820 million in 2017.

Yet assistant dean of Murray State University’s Hutson School of Agriculture, Brian Parr, said most of the money and interest he’s seen from Ohio Valley hemp farmers is in making CBD oil.

Parr said one obstacle to profitability is that farmers have yet to find a way to efficiently harvest hemp flowers besides cutting and handpicking them.

“So we’ve seen machines shipped in from Europe. We’ve seen headers from combines that were brought in too, that were supposed to be designed for hemp harvest, that haven’t worked,” Parr said.

Hemp seeds can now legally travel across state lines. Photo: Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource

He said the growing hemp industry has mostly relied on the existing labor of the tobacco industry in western Kentucky to help harvest CBD. But he warned this long process has mainly remained profitable because profit margins for the oil have remained high.

“At least in the short-term, the promise has been a very high return on the CBD varieties if they can be harvested, if they can be dried and if they can be extracted in a timely manner,” Parr said. “And those are three very big ‘if’s.’”

Parr said he thinks investing in hemp right now is risky because promised safety nets under the new Farm Bill, such as crop insurance, are probably still a year away. But that hasn’t stopped Ohio Valley farmers and some state government officials from charging ahead.

In State Hands

Under the 2018 Farm Bill, states have to submit plans to be approved by the USDA on how commercial hemp will be regulated. For example, federal regulations require THC levels of hemp to be tested below 0.3 percent. THC is the compound in cannabis that causes intoxication.

Kentucky didn’t hesitate in submitting its plan first, on the same exact day the 2018 Farm Bill was signed in December.

Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles argues the state pilot program already meets federal regulations stipulated by the USDA and that they want to keep moving fast on hemp for the future.

“We are going to be a resource for the United States Department of Agriculture, and we look forward to help in building a national framework. But for 2019, Kentucky will not be sitting on its hands,” Quarles said.

One advantage for Kentucky is that it has been able to fund four full-time employees dedicated to the program thanks to thousands of dollars in fees collected from hundreds of growers.

West Virginia Agriculture Commission Kent Leonhardt said in an opinion piece that in comparison to Kentucky, the Mountain State’s industrial hemp program is lagging, with only $9000 of support. He called on the state legislature to put more funding into the program to keep up.

In Ohio, Farmers Union President Joe Logan complains that the state is one of nine that never passed legislation for a hemp pilot program.

“Right after we got that farm bill passed, I called down to the [Ohio] department of agriculture and asked ‘Who’s your point person on this?’” Logan said. “And they said, ‘Well, we don’t have one.’”

Logan said he’s hopeful a push for state legislation will come this year now that hemp is no longer a controlled substance. As much as he considers Ohio to be a leader in many agricultural industries, he said Ohio state lawmakers in general haven’t seen the potential in hemp like the rest of the Ohio Valley.

A hemp farmer in Christian Co., KY. Photo: Nicole Erwin, Ohio Valley ReSource

Hope For Coal Country

At least one eastern Kentucky farmer sees that potential as a way to revitalize Appalachia’s economy.

Pine Mountain Remedies manager Nathan Hall isn’t growing hundreds of acres of hemp like some farms in central Kentucky. Instead, he’s growing hemp on a two-acre plot of land in Letcher County, leased from local community members so that they can be a part of the business, too.

Hall says profit is not his first priority. He’s more concerned with making sure the money made from hemp stays in eastern Kentucky communities that have lost many coal jobs.

He said he’s tired of seeing promised economic development schemes fall through.

“We have these proposed businesses that are going to build a thing on a former strip mine and it’s going to create two hundred jobs, and it just never happens,” Hall said.

He’s hoping that hemp can provide a way not only to make money but to create a stronger community through farming.

“Hemp is definitely a part of it, but it’s almost like a vehicle for how to create opportunities for people in the region who have access to these small, but productive acreages,” Hall said. “To me, that’s a big social impact opportunity to have them work with us.”

Glynis Board of ReSource partner station WVPB contributed to this story. This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Smithfield’s Plans to Cover Hog Lagoons Could Spur N.C. Biogas Industry



The Optima KV project in Duplin County pipes methane gas from nearby hog farms to this new refinery in Kenansville. There the gas is converted to pipeline-quality natural gas. Duke Energy uses the gas to produce electricity at its Smith Energy Complex in Richmond County. Photo: Courtesy of Duke Energy

Smithfield announced last year that it will use covered lagoons and digesters on 90 percent of its hog finishing farms within 10 years, a move that could reduce greenhouse gasses, create renewable energy and open opportunities in the biogas sector.

A man stepped out of the side door of his home in Kenansville and refused to give his name.

“I have to live here,” he said.

“Here” is hog-farming country, where signs reading “Stand up for Farmers” sprout from the roadsides.

Signs supporting hog farmers have been placed around Kenansville, the county seat of Duplin County, one of the largest pork-producing counties in the country since a court handed down decisions against farmers in 2018. Photo: Rose Hoban

Here, in Duplin County, hogs outnumber people 32-1.

Just outside of view from the man’s home lies Optima KV, a pilot project involving five farms that use covered lagoons and anaerobic digesters to convert methane from hog waste into renewable natural gas. The biogas is then injected into pipelines and sold to Duke Energy.

The man complained about odors and flies from Optiva KV. He said he built his sun porch for that reason. But he admitted that the smells aren’t as bad as they once were, before the covered digesters were installed.

Optima KV could be viewed as a microcosm of the not-too-distant future, a time when almost all of Smithfield Foods’ hog finishing farms in North Carolina will use covered lagoons and digesters to convert methane into biogas.

Smithfield announced in late October that 90 percent of the lagoons on those farms will be covered within 10 years. Similar projects will also be done in Missouri and Utah.

The announcement was followed by another one a month later in which Smithfield said it was partnering with Dominion Energy, a public utility based in Virginia, to spend at least $250 million in the next decade on hog farms in North Carolina, Virginia and Utah.

Smithfield says it is taking the steps partly to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2025 by capturing 85,000 tons of methane each year to generate renewable natural gas. That’s the equivalent of removing 900,000 cars from the roads.

Smithfield spokeswoman Lisa Martin said the pork producer and Dominion Energy will pay for the infrastructure, including piping, transportation, gas cleaning and equipment to inject the gas into pipelines. Farmers will pay for the digesters and lagoon covers if they choose to participate, Martin said

Biogas could lead to thousands of jobs

Supporters of the project say it will open the door to a fledgling biogas industry in North Carolina, creating thousands of jobs.

“It’s a really big step, there is no doubt about that,” said Tatjana Vujic, director of biogas strategy for Duke University. “I’m very pleased with this development. It’s going to move the needle on biogas in the state, and I think it’s going to open the door to making use of more of our waste streams,” such as poultry.

Tweet from the American Jobs Project, a bipartisan think tank geared at advancing “green” energy initiatives.

Vujic pointed to a 2016 report by the nonprofit American Jobs Project that identified biogas and utility-scale batteries as showing particular promise for economic development in North Carolina.

“With the right policies, utility-scale batteries and biogas can support 19,000 jobs per year through 2030,” the report found.

But some environmental groups say Smithfield’s plans don’t go nearly far enough. They want the company to stop using lagoons and spraying the waste onto adjoining farm fields. That method has led to millions of gallons of hog waste spilling out of the lagoons, most recently during Hurricane Florence. It has also led to concerns about overapplication of nitrogen, runoff into creeks and streams and complaints about odors, flies and related issues.

People living next to hog farms, each of which house thousands of animals, say mist from spraying manure on the fields drifts onto their properties. They worry about health problems from pathogens associated with the waste.

“Biogas technology that doesn’t address water pollution and public health issues associated with industrial-scale hog production is not a complete solution,” said Blakely Hildebrand, a staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We need technology that addresses those.”

Reducing greenhouse gases

Some environmental groups argue that Smithfield must begin using new and expensive technology that has been proven to work without harming the environment or the health of its neighbors.

But it’s hard to object to covering the lagoons and adding digesters, strictly from the standpoint of creating renewable biogas and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Smithfield’s plans are backed by the Environmental Defense Fund, which helped the company create its goals for reducing greenhouse gases.

North Carolina is the second-largest pork producer in the United States, home to 2,126 permitted industrial swine operations housing nearly 9 million animals. If all of those farms used covered lagoons and digesters, they could provide enough natural gas to power 140,000 homes.

And they could do that for as little as 6 cents per kilowatt hour, or roughly the same price as solar power, according to a  study  published in 2013 by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

At the same time, covered lagoons and digesters would be reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say causes global warming and has contributed to diminished Arctic sea ice, rising ocean levels, flooding from more intense storms and bigger and more frequent forest fires.

“Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth,” the National Climate Assessment warned in a study released in November.

Carbon dioxide is the most common form of greenhouse gas, 200 times more prevalent in the atmosphere than methane. But methane is at least 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide, and its levels have been growing. Agriculture contributes 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Joint venture

Besides covering lagoons and adding digesters, the joint venture between Smithfield and Dominion Energy also calls for expanding the Optima KV pilot project to two larger farm clusters, in Duplin and Sampson counties. Construction was to begin before the end of 2018.

“Our companies recognize the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the future of our planet,” Thomas Farrell, Dominion’s chairman and chief executive, said in a news release. Renewable natural gas “is an innovative and proven way to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry by converting it into clean renewable energy.”

Maggie Monast, senior manager of economic incentives and agricultural sustainability for the Environmental Defense Fund, is optimistic about the plans.

“Overall, I think it’s long overdue and much-needed progress,” Monast said. “We haven’t seen progress in a long time on this issue, and I think this creates momentum that we can harvest.’’

Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy, welcomes the initiative, too, but he said biogas has a long way to go before making a significant contribution to the state’s energy needs.

“I don’t think it will be a large contributor to an overall energy mix unless the technology improves greatly,” he said.

Nevertheless, Wheeless believes Smithfield’s plans will transform a small but growing waste-to-energy industry in North Carolina.

“I think it’s put biogas on the radar in North Carolina as a very viable way to create electricity,” Wheeless said.

Optima KV leading the way

North Carolina got its first good look at the potential for biogas from the hog industry in 2011 on Loyd Ray Farms in Yadkinville,  about 25 miles west of Winston-Salem.

That year, construction of a covered anaerobic digester system was completed on the farm as a demonstration project overseen and partly funded by Duke University, Google and Duke Energy. The $1.2 million project captures methane from hog waste and uses it to produce renewable electricity.

Using a 65-kilowatt microturbine, the system generates enough electricity to power itself and about half of the farm. Any extra electricity is sold to Duke Energy.

Two years after the project began, Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions published its study that found that the barebones cost of producing electricity from swine biogas could be as little as 6 cents per kilowatt hour.

The researchers also determined that the most cost-effective approach was either to create electricity on a single farm, such as Loyd Ray Farms, or use a cluster of farms to refine the waste into natural gas and then inject it directly into natural gas pipelines. They determined that the best cluster of farms was in an area covering Sampson and Duplin counties, where most of the state’s hogs are raised.

In 2016, Duke Energy entered into an agreement with OptimaBio, the company that oversees the Optima KV project on the five Duplin County hog farms in Kenansville. Combined, the farms raise more than 60,000 hogs for Smithfield Foods.

Under the agreement, OptimaBio will convert swine biogas from the five farms into renewable natural gas and inject it into a pipeline owned by Piedmont Natural Gas. Duke will then use the natural gas to generate electricity. The project is expected to produce enough renewable natural gas to power about 1,000 homes.

Optima KV is the first project in North Carolina to directly inject refined swine biogas into a natural gas pipeline, said Mark Maloney, OptimaBio’s founder and chief executive.

The five farms began injecting the gas into pipelines in March, Maloney said. The project became fully operational in June, with what Maloney called some hiccups in technology along the way.

“Like anything, when you do it for the first time it takes longer than you would hope, but it’s getting easier,” he said.

Other benefits of covers and digesters

An anaerobic digester is essentially a big, air-tight chamber that sits either beside or under a covered hog lagoon. Hog manure is pumped into the chamber, which is heated to spur communities of microorganisms to rapidly eat the waste and convert it into methane, which is trapped under the lagoon covers, siphoned off, cleaned and converted to natural gas.

Smithfield and Maloney point to other advantages of covered lagoons and digesters, besides creating reusable biogas and reducing greenhouse gases. They say the covers will significantly lessen the chances that the lagoons will overtop their banks during major storms.

And Maloney estimates that the covers have reduced odors at Optima KV by 20 percent to 40 percent. While the Optima KV farms still use uncovered lagoons, Maloney said, those with covered digesters receive only fresh manure, where much of the smells come from.

John Kilpatrick owns three farms that are part of the Optima KV project. He agreed that the covered lagoons and digesters have substantially reduced the smells coming from his farms. The digesters also greatly reduce the sludge at the bottom of his lagoons, he said, all but eliminating the expensive costs of hauling it away.

Kilpatrick said he and another farmer have invested about $11 million into the Optima KV project. Kilpatrick said he took out a 10-year loan for his part of the investment and expects to pay it off in five years. He said he makes up to a 15 percent profit on the sale of the methane, above the cost of the loan.

“It’s not that much money when you term it out,” he said. “It should pay for itself within 10 years.”

Whether other farmers will agree to such a large investment to cover their lagoons and digesters remains to be seen.

Martin, the Smithfield spokeswoman, did not provide a cost, other than to say it would be substantial.

“Farmers will have the opportunity to invest in covers or covered digesters,” Martin said, adding that participating farmers will profit from the sale of the natural gas.

“Farmers, I think, are supportive,” Maloney said. “They see it as being good shepherds of the industry, and i think they also see it as a new agricultural commodity.”

Martin also did not say how many of the state’s hog waste lagoons may be converted into covered digesters.

“At this point, it is premature to provide a figure quantifying the number of lagoons involved, as the number of lagoons per farm vary,” she said. “This is why our commitment is based off the number of hog finishing spaces. That being said, it is fair to say that many hundreds of farms will be involved in this effort.”

Angie Maier, the N.C. Pork Council’s director of government affairs and sustainability, noted that the value of renewable energy has increased substantially recently, driven in part by California’s quest to offset its carbon footprint.

“It doesn’t work for everyone, but folks who want to do it and it works for their farms, I think there are opportunities to cover their costs,” Maier said.

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years.

This story was originally published in North Carolina Health News .

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