Editor’s Note: Rarely do I cross writing I do for Campbell University with our work on The Rant, but today I’m making an exception. Lillington hog farmer Tom Butler’s decades-long efforts to not only minimize the environmental footprint of his farm but also produce energy from the millions of gallons of waste his farm produces each year.
Butler was featured prominently in a recent Rolling Stone article about North Carolina’s poor record of pollution and health concerns when it comes to the state’s $2.9 billion hog industry. Butler’s covered pig waste lagoons are not only keeping the air cleaner and the smell at bay on his farm, but they’re also trapping methane gas that he’s begun converting into energy that can be put back into the grid and power nearly 200 homes are gaining regional and national attention.
Butler received Campbell University’s first Rural Health Advocacy Award in 2017, and his efforts in Harnett County were part of a larger feature in the recently published Campbell Magazine cover story on the school’s efforts to improve the health of people in rural North Carolina and rural America.
Below is an excerpt from the article, with a link to the full piece at the bottom of this story.
It’s like walking across a tight water bed. A tight, acre-sized water bed. Only here, the two-inch-thick plastic beneath your feet is all that separates you from a lagoon filled with 6 million gallons of pig waste.
But that waste is why we’re here. It’s why National Geographic has been here. Rolling Stone Magazine and the Sierra Club. U.S. senators, governors and dozens of elected officials. Even an American Idol runner-up.
Tom Butler takes great pride in the power of his pig poop.
More specifically, the 77-year-old Lillington native and lifelong farmer takes pride in that poop’s potential. His covered lagoons are trapping methane gas, which in turn is powering his farm and will soon provide energy to its own grid of homes in Harnett County. Those giant green plastic tarps are also keeping the smells at bay — much to the appreciation of his neighbors in the rural, southwestern portion of the county — and plans are in the works to recycle the leftover sludge and produce nitrogen-based fertilizer.
Last November, Butler received Campbell University’s first Rural Health Advocacy Award for his innovations and his efforts. Introduced during the awards ceremony in the Alumni Room at Marshbanks Hall as the “high-tech redneck,” Butler was a man of few words behind the podium as he held the 13-inch glass award that now sits on a filing cabinet in his small shack/office just steps away from the much larger pig houses on his farm. But those few words were hopeful.
“We are hoping to build an organization that is industry-changing to rural areas,” Butler said before thanking the crowd and returning to his seat.
Six months later, in front of a much, much smaller crowd (a few writers and a photographer), he’s more comfortable accepting the accolades. But, of course, that’s not why he’s doing it.
“I just want to do the right thing,” he says. “If we don’t do the right thing — as an industry — people are going to suffer. I’d rather do the right thing than profit while people suffer.”