With little oversight, NC poultry farms raise 1 billion birds a year. Who pays the cost?

Johnny “Van” Garris sees how North Carolina’s poultry industry has grown every time he leaves his driveway.

No matter which way he turns, Garris drives by some of the roughly 50 massive poultry barns that have sprung up within a mile of his Anson County home.

If he heads west, he passes 24 barns lining Jarman Road. Six barns stand due north on Robinson Bridge Road and 12 are due south on the same road. Land has been cleared for at least a dozen more.

“If I didn’t already live here, I wouldn’t buy a piece of land to build a house here — not in the middle of all this,” Garris said.

Johnny “Van” Garris, pictured outside his house in Anson County, says the many industrial-scale poultry farms that have cropped up near his home have brought strong odors and vultures, disrupting his family’s quality of life.
Johnny “Van” Garris, pictured outside his house in Anson County, says the many industrial-scale poultry farms that have cropped up near his home have brought strong odors and vultures, disrupting his family’s quality of life.

Nearly all the barns were built since 2015 as farmers rushed to join a $4.7 billion North Carolina industry that state officials have allowed to grow with no local control and minimal state regulation.

With chickens and turkey production increasing by 33% in the past two decades — more than half of that growth coming in the past five years — poultry is North Carolina’s No. 1 agriculture business. By one measure, pounds of meat produced, North Carolina is the nation’s top chicken state.

Big poultry now raises more than a billion birds annually here in densely packed barns found from the western foothills to the coast. That works out to almost 100 chickens and turkeys for each of the state’s 10.5 million residents.

So-called dry-litter farms produce billions of pounds of waste with no requirement that they obtain environmental permits or get inspected.

The manure isn’t treated. It’s stored in piles, often in sheds, until it’s spread on fields as fertilizer. A tiny fraction fuels power plants. Some washes into North Carolina’s public waterways, evidence shows.

Dozens of poultry barns, including these near the small town of Morven, N.C., have sprouted up in Anson County in recent years.
Dozens of poultry barns, including these near the small town of Morven, N.C., have sprouted up in Anson County in recent years.

North Carolina does not require that neighbors be notified if a poultry farm is planned near their homes. In fact, the state shields the locations of poultry farms.

Only state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services staff know the addresses of dry-litter farms, which are nearly all of this state’s large poultry operations.

Secrecy here not only blocks the public’s view of what occurs on individual farms, it prevents regulators and researchers from assessing the industry’s collective impact on people and the environment.

Reporters polled 10 states, including six among the nation’s top 10 poultry producers, and found all disclosed more information or regulated poultry farming more rigorously than North Carolina. And what occurs in states with more protections, including South Carolina, shows what North Carolina is lacking.

To better quantify big poultry’s footprint, reporters created and analyzed what may be the most accurate count of poultry farms made public in North Carolina. Building on data from two research groups, they mapped 4,679 farms in 79 counties across the state.

At a farm north of Greenville, N.C., young chickens recently bunched together inside a barn with thousands of others. Industrial-scale poultry farms like these are proliferating in North Carolina, a state that does little to regulate the industry. Critics say that’s hurt the environment and disrupted the lives of neighboring residents.
At a farm north of Greenville, N.C., young chickens recently bunched together inside a barn with thousands of others. Industrial-scale poultry farms like these are proliferating in North Carolina, a state that does little to regulate the industry. Critics say that’s hurt the environment and disrupted the lives of neighboring residents.

The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer investigation found:

  • About 230,000 North Carolinians now live within a half-mile of a poultry farm, layering census data on the new map shows. But residents have no formal ability to challenge where these farms rise.

  • Impacts from poultry farms extend beyond their property lines. Odor from manure and dead birds can travel a half mile, research shows. Proximity to big poultry barns can increase the risk of illness for people living within three-quarters of a mile and reduce home values within a mile, studies say.

  • North Carolina’s broiler chickens, birds raised for meat, produce more waste than 7.5 million people, or nearly 72% of the state’s population.

  • It is impossible to track where all the waste ends up. Poultry farms must record where they spread it but aren’t required to tell the state. Only some manure haulers must.

  • At least 232 barns – housing as many as 5.8 million birds at once – sit in floodplains. North Carolina bought out many hog farms in flood-prone areas, but not poultry farms.

  • Poultry waste washes into North Carolina streams and rivers, scientists say. That can contribute to algae blooms and fish kills. But with all the secrecy, knowing where and how often is impossible to know.

“There is a lack of transparency in virtually every stage of the process,” said Blakely Hildebrand, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, the South’s largest nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental legal advocacy group. “...Our state legislature is just ignoring this issue altogether.”

North Carolina’s poultry crop: more than 1 billion birds

Statewide, chicken and turkey production has grown 66% since 1991. It jumped more than 17% since 2016.

2021

1B

Poultry

1991

605M

Poultry

1991

1996

2001

2006

2011

2016

2021

2021

1B

Poultry

1991

605M

Poultry

‘91

‘96

‘01

‘06

‘16

‘11

‘21

Source: N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Farmers and industry leaders say they work hard to protect the environment and the people who live near farms. Raising so many chickens and turkeys, they say, produces good jobs and good food.

This state’s poultry farmers and the industry’s growth are meeting “growing demand for food,” according to Steve Troxler, North Carolina’s longtime agricultural commissioner. Troxler declined multiple requests to discuss criticism of the poultry industry and North Carolina’s lack of regulation and transparency.

“At a time when food insecurity is a growing global issue and when the United Nations anticipates the need to increase food production by 75 percent or more by 2050 just to meet demand, we would hate to see anything damage our farmers’ ability to produce food,” Troxler wrote in an email to reporters.

A growing presence in North Carolina

For many years, hog farming was North Carolina’s best-known industrial-scale agricultural sector. The state imposed a moratorium on new swine farms in 1997 following concerns about the environmental risks they posed. But no one has applied brakes to the poultry industry.

Like the big hog farms, poultry farms confine thousands of animals inside huge barns. Usually owned by corporations, the birds stay long enough for contract farmers to fatten them up for slaughter. The companies then process and sell the meat in the U.S. and beyond. Farmers are tasked with safely disposing of the waste the animals leave behind.

As long as two football fields, the poultry industry’s trademark barns often stand in clusters of four or eight or more. Located in nearly every one of this state’s river basins, the farms are in remote spots but also on land bordering state parks and outside North Carolina’s largest cities. More are on the way.

Poultry farms now dot most of North Carolina. The smallest farms raise about 20,000 chickens at a time. The largest: more than 1.5 million. This map, built from two datasets and verified with satellite imagery, may be the most accurate view yet published. It shows 4,679 farms in 79 counties.
Poultry farms now dot most of North Carolina. The smallest farms raise about 20,000 chickens at a time. The largest: more than 1.5 million. This map, built from two datasets and verified with satellite imagery, may be the most accurate view yet published. It shows 4,679 farms in 79 counties.

Neighbors complain about the stink, turkey vultures, threats to their property values and traffic from manure haulers or tractor-trailers stuffed with caged birds whose white feathers fall like snow on rural highways.

The North Carolina General Assembly has steadily supported the poultry industry, often boosting industrial-scale hog farming too, by passing at least 10 bills since 2003. Three narrowed neighbors’ ability to file nuisance lawsuits against farms in state court.

“So far in North Carolina, we’ve been pretty lucky in the people being elected,” said Bob Ford, executive director of the N.C. Poultry Federation.

But critics say the industry should not grow at the expense of those who live near poultry farms or put the environment at risk. They say North Carolina could learn from other states — including several in the Southeast — that require more regulation and transparency.

Few NC rules for Big Poultry

Among its neighbors, North Carolina offers the least public information about large poultry farms and its regulations are among the most lenient.

No

Yes

North Carolina

Tennessee

South Carolina

Virginia

Permit approval required

Locations made public

Residents notified

Neighbors can comment

Local restrictions can be imposed

Complaints made public

State holds inspections

Locations made public

Residents notified

Neighbors can comment

Complaints made public

Local restrictions can be imposed

State holds inspections

Permit approval required NC SC VA TN No Yes

Note: Rules for each category differ from state to state, including types of permits required and the frequency of inspections. Full information about Georgia, which allows some local control over poultry farms, was not available.

Source: State agricultural and environmental agencies

The power to say no in South Carolina

In North Carolina, rumors and gossip are often the only warning that a poultry farm is coming to a community.

Unlike hog farms in the state, nearly all large poultry farms are exempt from annual inspections. They also are not required to get environmental permits that impose rules for controlling waste runoff. Nor must they notify nearby residents that hundreds of thousands of chickens might soon be their neighbors.

On a July afternoon, Garris, 77, sat on the porch outside of the Anson County home he’s lived in for three decades. In each direction, chicken houses sat just past groves of pine trees.

Big Poultry: Part 1

North Carolina’s poultry industry has taken flight. Farms now stand near the mountains, the coast and the state’s largest cities. The birds generate billions of pounds of untreated waste – more than NC’s infamous hogs. But legislators cloak this industry in secrecy. What's the cost?