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Independent Hog Farmers Face Uncertain Future After Smithfield Foods' Decision

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WAYNE COUNTY — Pork prices and consumer choice may be at stake as the hog industry faces dramatic change.Smithfield Foodsagreed Tuesday to pay the state $65 million to look for a better way to handle hog waste. One farmer, who was not part of that deal, fears for his future.

Gregory Peele and his brother, Anthony, have been raising hogs to make pork sausage since 1966. They have cut out the middle man and control their own prices, but they cannot control the costs of upgrading their hog operation and getting rid of lagoons.

"It's not a question of whether we think it needs to be done," Peele says. It's not a question of whether we'd like to do them. It's a question of whether it's economically feasible or not."

Independent hog producers are not required to close their lagoons yet. Smithfield Foods, which controls 70 percent of the state's hog farms, worked adealwith the state to phase out their lagoons within five years.

Sixty-five million dollars from the company will pay for cleaning up environmental damage and will fund research to find a better way to handle hog waste.

The announcement asks for the compliance of the other 30 percent of the hog market including independents like the Peele family.

"We will make every effort and use the full force of the law to bring the other 30 percent of the industry into compliance with this agreement," saysN.C. Attorney General Mike Easley.

The cost of changing to a new system is still unknown.N.C. Stateresearchers have two years to come up with the answer. Peele says if he and other independent farmers are forced to make changes they cannot afford, consumers will be the ones to suffer.

"I wonder what their reaction would be if only a few people controlled all of the production of food and livestock in this nation," Peele says. "I don't think they'd be quite as hard as they are on today's small farmers."

There are currently several alternative hog waste systems -- many of which turn the waste into odorless fertilizer. Those alternatives do cost more than the old lagoon systems. If used universally, the leftover fertilizer would not support the cost.