At the same time North Carolina farmers were expanding in hog production, water quality improved or remained stable in four river basins, according to an analysis of 32 years of data.

Forty-six percent of all sampling stations showed a trend toward improvement of water quality. Another 23 percent showed stable water quality. Only 5 percent showed a trend toward deteriorating water quality, and the location of the monitoring stations pointed to urban growth as a possible factor.

On the steps of the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., Frontline Farmers, a group of hog farmers in North Carolina, released results of a study that analyzed water quality data over 32 years — roughly from 1970-2000 — from the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resource. The group sent all of the major environmental groups in the state a copy of the analysis and presented the findings to three top North Carolina legislators.

“Water quality has improved,” says Chuck Stokes, a hog farmer and director of public affairs for the group.

The group discovered the data in the basement of a state building and hired Dwayne R. Edwards, a professor in the biosystems and ag engineering department at the University of Kentucky, to analyze the data over a two-year period. By and large, the group funded the study from donations. Edwards specializes in assessing surface water quality of ag production practices and developing technology to aid water quality.

The study analyzed data from 1970-2000 looked at water quality in the Tar-Pamlico, Cape Fear, White Oak and Neuse river basins. These river basins occur in eastern North Carolina, where the increase in hog production has taken place. The study looked at almost 200 water quality parameters from 65 monitoring stations.

“Overall, the data used in this study do not indicate the presence of a generally problematic relationship between hog production and river quality in the basins of interest,” Edwards wrote in the executive summary of the report. “Even though there may be very isolated instances in which hog production has adversely impacted water quality, the quality of water in the basins’ main stems appears to be largely improving or remaining stable.”

In a few instances, hog production appeared to be a major contributor to decreasing water quality. But there were as many cases where urban activities appear to play a substantial role in water quality trends as hog production did.

“It would be difficult to tell exactly where the deteriorating water quality is coming from,” Edwards says.

The expansion of the hog industry in North Carolina has been marked by controversy. Damage from hurricanes in the 1990s caused lagoons to overflow and led to a search for alternatives to lagoons.

In the 1980s, North Carolina’s hog population went from 226,200 to more than 2.5 million. By 1995, the total hog numbers in North Carolina had risen to 7 million. The explosive growth alarmed environmentalists and citizens who lived in eastern North Carolina.

“As farmers, we are tired of being caught in the cross fire,” Stokes says. “As Paul Harvey would say, ‘Here’s the rest of the story.’

“For the first time, we have untainted data,” Stokes says.

Stokes called it a “launching pad” for potentially a new day where groups work together.

“By no means does this let farmers off the hook,” Stokes says. “Our industry needed cleaning up. We have made great strides in becoming more responsible and we look forward to a practical option to lagoons. This indicates our proactive behavior toward solutions.”

Lamont Futrell of Wilson, N.C., the group’s vice president, said “the public always hears the bad side, so this is great news for companies and people. We’ve had so much bad publicity, we think it’s great to put out the positive news.”

Baird Kilpatrick, a Kenansville, N.C., hog producer said farmers have done a good job protecting the environment.

Frontline Farmers is a non-profit group of 150 hog producers in 25 North Carolina counties. Its funding comes from dues paid by the producers.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com