Managing for Minimal Impact

Sarem Farms

Sarem Farms • Bundy Lane • Gates, NC

When it comes to informing the public about pork production and the environment, Bundy Lane takes the proactive approach. Whether he meets a neighbor with a concern about pork production or crosses paths with a true anti-hog environmentalist, Lane usually offers his business card. “I invite them to come out to my farm and take a look around any time they want,” he says.

Over the years, a number of those folks have accepted Lane's invitation to visit Sarem Farms, his 4,800-sow farrow-to-wean operation near Gates, NC. “Once people come out here to the farm, they leave with a totally different point of view,” he says. “If someone has concerns about pork production, I challenge them straight up to come and take a look.”

Perhaps one reason that Bundy displays such self confidence is the fact that he's no newcomer to either agriculture or pork production. The Lane family's agricultural roots run deep in northeast North Carolina. Bundy, a North Carolina State University graduate, represents the eighth generation of the family to farm in the area. “My ancestors got off the boat from Europe in Edenton, about 30 miles away,” Lane says. “Each generation farmed as sharecroppers until my grandfather was able to buy a small bit of land.”

Since that time, the family has expanded and diversified operations. Roger, Lane Bundy's father, manages the family's Angus cattle business as well as a farm supply business. Bundy manages the sows while his brother, John, manages 3,000 acres of row crops. “Each generation has always had some pigs and cows along with crops,” Bundy says. “We are doing the same thing, but on a different scale.”

Bringing a large-scale hog operation into the area required Lane to place a premium on environmental stewardship right from the start. The sow farm was built in 1996 under contract with Carroll's Foods (now Murphy Brown). It sits only about 500 ft. from the edge of a meandering swamp that eventually feeds the Chowan River. The Chowan and other waterways in the area are increasingly popular with bass fishermen, boaters and others seeking recreation. “There's a huge fine to pollute these waters,” Lane says. “North Carolina charges a $25,000-a-day fine, so you absolutely must do it right if you're going to be in this business.”

Diversified Farming

The sow farm features tunnel-ventilated and pit-recharge buildings connected to a two-stage lagoon. Like much of northeastern North Carolina, the 700-acre tract is heavily wooded. The site contains 375 acres of forest and 325 acres that grow peanuts, cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and forages.

Forages, watered and nourished by effluent through one of the farms center-pivot irrigation units, support 75 head of Angus cattle. The 80 acres of forage is split between fescue, a cool-season grass, and warm-season Bermuda grass. A second center pivot feeds cropland, and a traveling gun irrigator is used on other fields.

Commercial fertilizer is used to balance the nutrients from applied effluent. In most cases, little additional fertilizer is needed. “Effluent is almost perfect for cotton,” Lane says. “It just about matches the (nutrient) analysis we need.”

The effluent, providing both nutrients and irrigation water, was a blessing in 2002, when the area experienced a severe drought. “Our corn receiving the effluent averaged about 130 bushels an acre,” he says. “Corn grown right next to it that received only commercial fertilizer and no irrigation yielded only about 30 bushels.” Cotton yields were also up, and the boost to forage crops allowed the farm to make enough hay to last through the winter.

Fertilizer value adds up in cost savings. Lane figures the nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) in the effluent, using costs for commercial fertilizer of 30¢/ lb. for N and 28¢ for P, ring up an annual savings of $2,753.70 for N and $1,879.80 for P.

Management Innovation

Some of the innovations in manure management at Sarem Farms are easy to see. The center pivots, for example, feature automatic valves that help prevent over-application in case the system stalls. Computer control panels on the pivots allow Lane to adjust applications to meet the precise needs of the crop. A single-channel radio system allows constant monitoring as well as remote-control operation of the pivots.

Lane also is experimenting with what he calls a “natural biofilter” to help disperse odors and gases coming through the tunnel ventilation fans. He planted broadleaf evergreen bushes (ligustrums) in the path of the air exhausted from the buildings. “We know the plants help collect dust, and we feel there has been a noticeable reduction in odor immediately beyond the bushes,” he says.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of environmental management on the farm is not so easy to spot. It involves a commitment to continuing improvement of all nutrient management processes. Sarem Farms is among the first 10 hog farms in the U.S. to implement a process called Environmental Management Systems (EMS).

EMS started as a pilot program developed by the Environmental Protection Agency in cooperation with the North Carolina Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. “EMS is based on continued quality improvement, which is the management style we have always tried to incorporate on the farm,” Lane says. “It was not a big leap in management style.”

EMS involves a system of management and recordkeeping that helps manage environmental and production concerns simultaneously. “Many farms probably view production and environmental management separately, but everything involved in production can eventually impact the environmental side,” he says. “EMS takes a more holistic approach, looking at the big picture.”

David Ray, a contract service manager for Murphy Brown, says that Sarem Farms stands out because environmental management has always been incorporated into daily operations. “Bundy has made environmental management a number one priority,” Ray says. “He has proven that production and nutrient management go hand-in-hand, and both receive equal attention on this farm.”

EMS demands consistency in management through the development of such things as standard operating procedures, Lane points out. He has developed a manual that provides all the information required to keep Sarem Farms in compliance. “If anything would happen to me, it would allow my wife and brother to step in immediately and find out where all the files are and what they need to do to continue operations,” he says.

Serving Fellow Farmers

Lane also takes an active role working on environmental issues on behalf of fellow pork producers. He helped found Frontline Farmers, and serves as chairman of its environmental committee.

“Frontline Farmers was formed a couple of years ago to make sure that the perspective of farmers was represented on environmental issues,” he says. “Membership is open only to those who own and operate hog farms. Not absentee owners or investors, but those folks who are actually pumping the manure.”

Lane's profile with Frontline Farmers has led him to be involved in a number of stakeholder panels. That includes the technology panel overseeing research into alternative technologies at North Carolina State University. This was the research that came about as part of the agreement between Smithfield Foods, Premium Standard Farms and the North Carolina attorney general regarding pork production's impact on the environment. “I'm the only farmer on the panel,” Lane points out. “When people are looking to solve our problems, it seems important that we make sure the farmer perspective is involved.”

Leaving Footprints

Lane points out that good environmental management can be part of the search for improved efficiency. “I want our total footprint on the environment to be as small as possible,” he says. “To me, the best way to get that job done is to wring the most from every acre of land or the most pigs from every sow. It's also good business to do that. And the more we get from each acre in production, the more land can be left untouched by mankind.”

He plans to continue to spread that message. “People inherently want to believe farmers,” Lane says. “They have a good image of farmers. You're always taking a risk when you invite people to your farm, but we need to take that risk.”