Four years ago, Circle Four Farms started building what could become one of the largest hog farms in the West. Located in the high desert area of western Utah, the owners believed this arid, remote area was the ideal location for a hog farm.
Thirty-two thousand sows later, Circle Four's general manager Steve Pollman still believes the location is ideal. But the farm has hit some rough spots along the way, including odor complaints and unfavorable media coverage.
With plans and hopes to keep building the hog operation, Pollman is determined to control the odor problems. His goal is to make the operation a model of environmental integrity.
Background A group of the East Coast's largest hog producers own Circle Four Farms. They include Murphy Family Farms, Prestage Farms and Carroll's Foods, all of North Carolina, and Smithfield Foods of Virginia.
The original goal was to reach full production at 120,000 sows. However, they are taking their time. When the expansion is completed this year, they will own 40,000 sows, farrow-to-finish, in the Milford, UT, area.
The Utah location was selected because it gave Circle Four fast access to the West Coast pork market. Market hogs are shipped to California for processing.
The operation has created prosperity in this desolate area of Utah. Pollman reports they have added $120 million worth of assets to Beaver County plus an $8 million payroll. Some 325 employees work for Circle Four Farms.
But with prosperity have come complaints. Articles in the national media claimed widespread odor problems and a big community backlash. Pollman says these are exaggerated.
"(The media reports) are a gross embellishment," Pollman says. "We have excellent support from the community. However, you are always going to have a very small, outspoken group of people who are opposed to you.
"And to say our odor problems in southwest Utah are any different than anywhere else is not a fair assessment," he adds.
Odor Abatement Due to Circle Four's desert climate, they handle their manure differently than in places like North Carolina.
Two-stage lagoons are used - a primary lagoon is anaerobic, the second-stage basin is for evaporation.
"We don't have to apply our waste," Circle Four's environmental programs manager Katie Elmer says. "We treat the manure through anaerobic digestion, maintain a 20-year sludge accumulation volume, and allow the water to evaporate in the second -stage basin." After 20 years, the sludge will be removed and spread on land or handled in some environmentally sound manner. The primary lagoons are 25 ft. deep.
Manure is removed from the buildings with a pit recharge system. Effluent from primary lagoons is pumped into shallow pits in the buildings. This liquid keeps ammonia levels down and allows easier manure removal. Plugs are pulled in the pits and manure empties into the primary lagoon. As liquid nears the top of primary lagoons, effluent flows through pipes to the second-stage evaporation basins.
The first-stage anaerobic lagoon naturally produces odor, Elmer says, especially when it becomes more active in the spring.
Originally, Circle Four Farms believed a 3-mile buffer from any residence would allow the odors to dissipate. Instead, they found odors could travel even further under the right conditions.
"There have been a couple of occasions, in the morning or evening, where we smelled them in town," reports Elmer. "That is a good nine miles away.
"We thought that the lack of humidity in our arid climate would be an advantage," she adds. "Usually odor travels better in humid climates than it does in arid, dry climates."
Since then, Circle Four has tried to minimize odors by trying many different technologies. In fact, their efforts to reduce odor led them to volunteer their hog operations for odor experiments.
NPPC Training Ground The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) used Circle Four Farms to try out their new, on-farm odor assessment program. In April, a team of engineers involved with the program conducted an assessment of Circle Four. At the same time, the assessment served as a training ground for several other engineers, who will conduct assessments in the future, Elmer reports.
The on-farm odor assessment is free to producers. But action on potential problems is up to producers and must be paid for by them (see sidebar page 24).
"The assessment was really good for Circle Four," Elmer says. "I go out and inspect the lagoons on a monthly basis. Having a fresh set of experienced eyes was wonderful."
Now, Circle Four will be part of NPPC's second odor control project. Some of their units will be used in the Odor Solutions Initiative. In this program, technologies designed to control odor will be tested on hog farms throughout the U.S. The products will be tested against the claims made by the company about their respective product.
Elmer looks after 46 lagoon systems, all permitted by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Circle Four has not been denied a permit. The farm has had a few public hearings, however. Elmer explains that the permits require a 30-day comment period. If the DEQ receives enough, a public hearing is held.
"One reportable manure spill occurred when manure was back-siphoned into a well," Elmer says. "We immediately took action to correct the incident and we no longer are in violation."
Circle Four's lagoons range in size from 264,000 cu. ft. to 4.5 million cu. ft. Either a flexible membrane liner (FML) or clay liner is used in the lagoons, depending on availability of clay. Elmer says state regulations allow both. When a FML is used, an 8-in. layer of compacted clay is put beneath it. A clay liner includes 6 in. of compacted dirt and then a foot of compacted clay.
Elmer notes that the clay liner specifications are 10 times more stringent than for municipal lagoons in Utah.
Generally, a FML is used to line the secondary lagoons. Elmer says clay tends to dry up and crack when the liquids evaporate.
Monitoring wells are installed around each lagoon system. Elmer says the wells have not indicated a problem.
Reducing Odor Problems Circle Four's efforts to minimize lagoon odors has led them to many different technologies and products. In the meantime, they've learned more about odor in an arid climate.
In places like North Carolina, the vegetation helps disperse odors by creating a little disturbance in the air and mixing the odors.
"Here, you have a straight line to wherever the wind blows," she says. "Granted, we get a lot of mixing from our wind. But when the wind calms down to 1-2 mph, that's when the odors are carried."
The wind tends to calm down at night, thus the higher risk of odor in the evening and early morning. Elmer says they also suspect the odors rise in the day with warmer temperatures and drop at night with the cool temperatures.
"In the past, no one really had a lot of experience in using lagoons in arid conditions," Pollman says. "We are pleased with the effectiveness of our anaerobic lagoons and are continuing to evaluate ways to make them more efficient."
One way Circle Four improves the effectiveness of its lagoons is adequate startup procedures. The lagoons must be properly seeded with correct ratios of manure to water.
Circle Four has tried a number of manure additives to cut odor. "They might reduce the odor a little bit," Elmer says, "but not enough."
Besides additives, they've tried various covers. Elmer says that while they had problems with some covers due to the climate and waste handling system, she believes covers have potential.
They also tried aeration. "It was very costly and not very effective," she says. "The lagoons are very deep and it is not very practical to aerate the entire lagoon."
Then they tried the aeration method for just the surface, also without good results. "I don't think we'll be using aerators as our odor solution unless they are used in conjunction with another process," Elmer says.
"Frankly, I don't think we will see some magic powder to throw in the lagoon or in the feed that will solve these odor challenges," Pollman adds.
Instead, Pollman says they are looking at some alternative technologies, still in the testing stage.
Pollman has been with Circle Four just one year. In that year, he has hit the frustration of trying to scientifically quantify odor. "One of the challenges we've seen is relying on the nose as our scientific instrument to quantify," Pollman says. "Even artificial noses are still primitive. The challenge to us as an industry is we have to figure out how to use more advanced science to do the problem solving."
In the meantime, they will move their new hog units further into the desert, 22 miles from the nearest residence.
"With the remote location comes extra challenges with the development of infrastructure such as roads, power, natural gas and telephone availability, " Pollman says. "But we still think the move is worth it because of the isolation.
"Our strategy is to be the world's best hog operation, and not necessarily the world's biggest," he adds. "We're a long way from achieving our goal. But we're making excellent progress."
The National Pork Producers Council's (NPPC) two ambitious programs to help solve odor problems are well underway.
The On-Farm Odor Assessments will be available soon to producers in a few states this summer and many others by this fall. And the Odor Solutions Initiative is just beginning. This program is designed to test odor solutions on commercial farms.
NPPC leaders announced these two programs one year ago to head off odor concerns, which hinders producers in many areas. Here's a look at the progress being made in both programs, according to Earl Dotson, NPPC vice president of education, environment and production:
* On-Farm Odor Management Assistance Program - NPPC put up $1.5 million this year to get the program off the ground. The program will provide free, third-party assessments of environmental and odor concerns on hog operations.
The on-farm assessments will be conducted by a team of three engineers. Engineers used for the assessments will be from private industry, universities and government agencies. The findings of the engineers will be confidential. While the assessments are free, producers must foot the bill for any solutions or changes to the hog operation.
Pilot on-farm assessments conducted in several states are completed. Now, engineers involved in the pilot tests are training other engineers in several states. State pork producer groups will coordinate assessments on producer farms after this.
Dotson says the first state to nearly complete on-farm assessments is Utah, due to Circle Four Farm's testing. They also tested other Utah producers, covering 85% of the state's production.
Other states now rolling out their programs with pilot testing or engineer training include Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Texas and other southern states may wait until fall due to the heavy demand already on engineers in the Midwest.
Dotson says the assessments in the Midwest cannot be conducted after about October, due to lack of odor.
State producer groups are sharing some of the assessment costs with NPPC. Dotson says some grants from the Environmental Protection Agency also are available to states for financing the assessments.
NPPC hopes to complete 1,200 on-farm odor assessments this year. Dotson says they then hope to conduct another 3,500 assessments in 1999 and 6,000 assessments in 2000.
* Odor Solutions Initiative - This $3.5 million program is underway with more than 400 entries vying to be part of the free testing conducted by NPPC. Selection of the products or odor-reducing methods to be tested will be completed soon.
Dotson says they hope testing of the products or technology will begin in July. Commercial hog operations throughout the U.S. have volunteered facilities for the testing. Some will be used for the products and technologies and others for control farms.
The applications are either national or regional categories. Companies in the national category will have tests conducted in five states. Regional entries are tested in three states.
The technologies eligible for testing cover four areas: biological, chemical, mechanical and management systems.
Once testing begins, air and water samples will be continuously monitored. Results of the tests will be evaluated by a third party, Tetra Tech EM Inc. This firm is used by EPA and other governmental agencies to verify results.
The final evaluation of the products or technologies will be against claims made by the company, Dotson says. Then the information will be distributed to the industry.