A Challenge Worth Solving

Guest post by John Benhart ’19 | Bass Connections (Animal Waste Management and Global Health project team)

When we rolled up to the farm, it hit me. This place was real. On the wide piedmont plain, all I could see for miles was cropland, trees and several huge metal barns. We stepped out of our cars and walked over to the barns, a part of Loyd Ray Farms, in Yadkin County.

Though the shrieks and rustles of the hundreds of pigs beckoned us, we knew our purpose for visiting was not to see them, but instead what they produced for so much of their lives. We smelled the feces before we saw it, where it lay resting in large lagoons out behind the barns. It was a sight not many of us will forget.

I was a sophomore at the time, and a member of a Bass Connections project studying challenges in animal waste management. Our project sought to evaluate current practices in animal farming waste management, and, ultimately, to develop recommendations for better practices.

Unlike human waste, regulation requires no treatment of the excrement produced on hog farms. So, it sits in football field-sized pools outside of the barns where the pigs live. The system is a low-cost method to deal with the waste, but it raises many challenges, in areas including public health, emissions and environmental justice.

As we stared at the lagoons on Loyd Ray Farms, the complexity and scale of our project was daunting, but energizing just the same. Our team was composed of students and faculty interested in just about every facet of the animal farming industry. We had Law and Nicholas School students who were passionate about the environmental challenges posed by emissions, and global health majors interested in the public health challenges of disease on these farms, among others. Fascinatingly, the project served as a junction for students and faculty interested in such a diverse set of disciplines.

Together, our team worked to explore these themes. As we honed our plan of analysis, our ideas coalesced into a comprehensive research framework. A flowchart of sorts, the framework walked through the various paths of analysis which our project sought to pursue, outlining the questions which would guide our research in navigating the interconnected roles of technology and policy.

The framework birthed a first-semester research paper, focused on the industry here in North Carolina. Using this process as a model, we then applied our framework to the international scale, choosing five different countries to analyze and compare.

The power of this analysis became clear as we moved along in the Bass Connections project. Our process of asking and answering questions led us to develop a project that covered a wide breadth of the animal farming industry, both globally and domestically. Just the same, excursions to farms like the innovative Loyd Ray Farms provided us with the necessary depth to understand the industry firsthand.

Our research and experiences have since been compiled on a website, and it is exciting for all of us to be able to share our findings. However, perhaps the most satisfying part of Bass Connections was how it encouraged so many of us to turn our minds away from Duke and out into the world.