The question in the storm’s aftermath was how to dispose of them.
The state frowns on burying dead hogs because of the high water table in eastern North Carolina, so most were either taken to lined landfills or rendered for their fat.
But state agricultural officials have come up with “a progressive and innovative” way to turn the 4.2 million poultry carcasses into something useful: compost.
Composting is not new. Farmers have been using the practice for generations. It just hadn’t been tried on such a mass scale following a weather disaster until Hurricane Matthew in 2016, said Joe Reardon, consumer protection assistant commissioner for the state Department of Agriculture.
Reardon said North Carolina was the first state in the country to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funding to compost the 1.8 million birds that died during Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 8, 2016.
“As unfortunate as it is to have lost these animals, I think it’s a testament to our commissioner (Steve Troxler) of what we have done,” Reardon said.
Hurricane Florence brought an even bigger disaster than Matthew, with more than twice as many dead poultry. So Reardon said the Department of Agriculture again turned to FEMA for help, requesting up to $20 million to turn the dead birds into compost. He said he wouldn’t have an exact figure of the actual costs until after the composting process is completed in about a week.
The process seems relatively simple. Lay a carbon source such as wood chips on the ground, typically outside of the poultry houses, followed by a layer of sawdust. Place the dead poultry and litter on top of the sawdust, then cover with more sawdust and wood chips to form a giant mound that Reardon referred to as a windrow. A natural process will raise the temperature to between 140 and 160 degrees inside the mound for 10 to 15 days.
“Heating and curing denatures the birds and kills pathogens,” Reardon said. “You end up with organic material the farmer can use. It provides a good source of nutrition to the land itself.”
The entire process takes about 21 days, Reardon said.
“There is no odor. There is no smell. There is no leachate,” he said. “It’s very natural and very environmental – and public-health friendly.”
Reardon said the state brought in outside experts to better control the composting process at each farm that had to use it.
“It took a lot of work and people but at the end of the day we think we did the right thing,” he said. “We’re just so proud to say no farms had any buried birds.”
In earlier times, burying dead poultry was common. Scott Marlow, senior policy specialist with Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA, said composting dead poultry is certainly preferable to burial.
As part of the agreement with FEMA, farmers can use the compost on their fields as fertilizer or give it to their neighbors. They just cannot sell it, Reardon said.
He said North Carolina borrowed the idea of mass composting from the Midwest, after avian flu killed more than 9 million birds in Minnesota in 2015.
“We took what we learned from other states in disease mitigation measures, and we took that process to mitigate a natural disaster,” Reardon said.
He said he hopes other states will learn from North Carolina’s composting and begin using the method. North Carolina is the only state that has applied for and received FEMA money for poultry composting after a natural disaster, Reardon said. The state will provide 25 percent of the costs in a matching agreement with FEMA.
After Hurricane Matthew, Reardon said, it took about four months to complete the poultry composting process. The state has learned since then, he said. It now takes about three weeks.
State agricultural officials calculated the loss of 4.2 million chickens and turkeys at $15.2 million.