Understanding Pig Lagoons: Everything You Need to Know

There are three key things to understand about lagoons: (1) How they are designed, (2) the anaerobic process that takes place inside lagoons, and (3) the benefits they offer to farmers. Let’s look at these separately:


Most lagoons are constructed as an earthen basin. They are earth-walled structures that use basin liners to prevent groundwater contamination. Lagoons must have a liner, which is typically made of clay or geosynthetic plastics.

Lagoons must meet specific design criteria. Everything from size to dike construction are carefully engineered to meet state regulations. It is far more complicated than just digging a hole in the ground. Just like a building must meet certain codes and regulations, so does a hog lagoon.

Where Can Lagoons be Built?

Another major aspect of lagoon design is the location. In North Carolina, there are many rules that say hog lagoons may only be built certain distance away from wells, only in certain soil types, etc. Along with placement of lagoons, the fields where waste water can be applied must be carefully placed (more on that later).One thing that many people don’t realize is that no new hog lagoons have been built in North Carolina for more than twenty years. The state legislature passed a moratorium on construction of new hog farms in 1997 and those restrictions remain in place today.


Lagoons may not seem very complicated, but there is actually a lot going on in that earthen basin. From anaerobic bacteria to pink water, lagoons require a closer look.

Anaerobic Process

The anaerobic process is where the magic happens in the lagoon. It is the process that occurs when anaerobic bacteria grow in an oxygen free environment (the treatment zone of a lagoon) and decomposes organic matter (waste). The result of this process creates something very valuable to the farmer — fertilizer! Those anaerobic bacteria do a great job of treating the waste and turning waste into useful nutrients that can be used as fertilizer.



Managing Lagoon Levels

Farmers must maintain a buffer of at least 19” between the top of the lagoon and the liquid storage. This space – called a freeboard – is designed to prevent the lagoon from overflowing.The lagoon system is built to effectively manage significant rainfall events. Maintaining a minimum freeboard level is specifically designed to handle 24 hours of rain during a 25-year storm – the largest storm that can be expected during a 25-year period based on historical record. If the freeboard level falls below 19 inches, the farm must immediately notify the NC Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and submit an action plan to return to normal levels within 30 days.

Pink Lagoons?

Color is a good indicator of proper lagoon function. The pink tint often seen on hog lagoons means it is working as intended. Purple sulfur bacteria reduce the concentration hydrogen sulfide, a significant source of odor. In other words, pink reduces stink.


Anaerobic lagoons produce nitrogen which is a valuable fertilizer for farmers. Farmers must follow a detailed process to properly manage their lagoons. Here’s how it works:

The farmer samples the surface water of the lagoon and sends it off for analysis every 90 days.  The results from that analysis tell the farmer how much plant available nitrogen is contained in the lagoon’s temporary storage depth. The farmer then applies the nitrogen to crops based on guidelines set by the DEQ. State regulations also require farmers to keep detailed records of the nutrients applied.

To simplify, the process looks like this:

the cycle

the cycle

Ultimately, it is a sustainable cycle that allows pigs to fertilize crops like corn which then gets fed back to pigs in their feed ration.

NC Farm Family Faces: A Way of Life--The Murphy Family

In 1970, John Murphy started a farm in Albertson, NC. Although born on a farm (his family was sharecroppers), he wasn't young when he started his farm, now called Triple M Farms. He was in his 40's. He saw a farm in Duplin County for sale, and decided to make a career change. At the time he was living in Lenoir County, working a service station. He and his family packed up moved to Duplin County to tend the 80 acres he purchased. To make ends meet, he had to work at night while farming during the day.

Fast forward to 2018, and the farm that John Murphy started in 1970 is now 1,500 acres. While John is no longer with us, his sons and their families continue the farm.

Triple M Farms is named after the three Murphy brothers--Morris, Grayling, and Allen. Morris and Grayling work full-time on the farm, while their brother Allen, works as a lawyer in New Bern, but comes back to the farm to work part-time. In addition to the brothers, two of their sons work full-time on the farm along with two additional employees and seasonal workers.

Grayling, Allen, and Morris Murphy (from L to R)

Grayling, Allen, and Morris Murphy (from L to R)

Allen and his wife, Jane

Allen and his wife, Jane

Morris Murphy with wife, Linda. Also pictured is his son Justin with wife Julie and children Adeline and Tate. Morris and Linda's daughter's children are also pictured--Jenna and Cason. Their daughter, Jennifer, works for Smithfield Foods and is married to Monty.

Morris Murphy with wife, Linda. Also pictured is his son Justin with wife Julie and children Adeline and Tate. Morris and Linda's daughter's children are also pictured--Jenna and Cason. Their daughter, Jennifer, works for Smithfield Foods and is married to Monty.

Grayling Murphy with his son Bradley, wife, MaryAnn and children Bentley and Kendall

Grayling Murphy with his son Bradley, wife, MaryAnn and children Bentley and Kendall

They all work together to grow cucumbers for Mt. Olive Pickles, cotton, soybeans, hay, sweet potatoes, corn, cows, turkeys for Butterball, pigs for Smithfield, and timber. As the farm (and family) has grown, they have diversified and are up for trying new things. For them, this helps ensure the future of the farm.

The future of the farm is important to the Murphys because of the past and the legacy it that comes with it. Their father had a dream of building a farm for his family. He started it in 1970, and it has continued today. Not only has it continued, but it has grown. It has also remained a family farm. For the Murphys, being a family farmer is more than just working with your family members.

"Watching your kids raise their kids on the farm is special. We teach them more than how to make a living off the land. We teach them how to appreciate the land," said Morris

What a place for kids to grow up too! The Murphy's grandchildren love running around on the farm and helping out. They love to visit the animals and play in the wide-open spaces. There are woods for them to walk through, open fields to run in, flowers to pick, a pond to fish at, and plenty of quality time with family.

Their hope for the future? To be able to pass the farm on to the next generation. While they know that not all their children and grandchildren will want to farm, many do. Of the grandchildren, the Murphys may have a marine biologist, teacher, and several farmers on their hands, but "who knows," says Morris "they are only 4 and 5 years old."

The Murphy family believes that this life is worth passing on, just as their father passed it on. Their passion and love for the farm is so obvious when spending time with the Murphys. They excitedly share stories, passionately point out parts of the farm, and the grandkids blissfully run around, playing on the farm. Almost every evening (weather dependent), you can find the family spending time outdoors, riding their golf cart around the farm with the kids.

Although Triple M Farms, supports multiple families and has many of acres, they don't consider themselves a large farm. They are a small family farm, but according to Morris's calculations, 140,000 families rely on their farm every year. 200,000 pairs of jeans are made from the cotton they grow. That's the kind of impact so many family farms have on our communities.

The Murphy brothers want others to realize what their farm is all about and what it provides. They are passionate about educating people about the farm and the food and products produced. There is a disconnect between urban and rural America.

"They [most of the public] don't understand what it takes to produce the food. There's a huge misunderstanding of what farming is and what farming provides. It [the food] doesn't just magically appear. They [farmers] work really hard day in and day out," said Allen.

The Murphy brothers are committed to not only being good farmers, but to educate others about what they do. If you have the fortune to visit their farm, you will find gracious hosts, laughing children, and beautiful views. For the family, farming is more than a job.

"It's not just a profession. It's not just an occupation. You hear the cliche, it's a way of life, but it really is," said Morris.

At Triple M Farms, the family behind the farm is passionate, works hard, and is eager to share their story. Not only this, but in the words of Grayling, "we are proud of what we do."

This is a family farm. This is a glimpse into their world. These are the faces of farm families in North Carolina. 

Photos by: M. See Creative

Cheap Shots Taken in Recent Article About Hog Farmers

It’s no secret that the newspaper business is struggling mightily. Here’s the impact: Smaller staffs means that The News & Observer and others now rely on stories they didn’t write more and more frequently. It pays for some stories, like those by the Associated Press, while others are free.

We tell you this because The News & Observer just published a story about hog farmers that was written by ProPublica.

Who is ProPublica?

It’s a nonprofit news group that receives funding from, among other sources, foundations that also support groups opposed to animal agriculture. ProPublica writes the stories, then provides them to newspapers looking for stories to publish.

The negative slant of ProPublica’s story about hog farmers is no surprise. It read like a compilation of all the unkind stories written by partisan groups like the Waterkeepers Alliance. And it featured familiar characters, like Elsie Herring, repeating a familiar litany of complaints: She can’t go outside. She can’t open her windows. She’s a prisoner in her own home. All because she lives near a hog farm.

But at the top of the same story in The News and Observer there was a picture of the ‘woman who can’t go outside’ — standing outside in front of her home.

Herring once claimed the hog farmer next to her home sprayed his field “three or four days on a slow week” and sometimes “daily” and sometimes “at night.” (She’s also claimed that he sprays eight feet from her front door, which clearly isn’t true.)

Every time a farmer applies effluent, the law requires him to keep a record for state inspectors.

So, what do the records show? That he uses that field very infrequently. Records from 2017 show that the farmer only used the field near Herring’s home twice — and he continues to use the field only on rare occasions.

ProPublica didn’t tell you that.ProPublica wrote about the pork industry’s supposed “political clout,” reporting that farmers and farm groups have contributed more than $16 million to politicians over the past 18 years. But it didn’t mention the political influence of those opposed to hog farming. Trial lawyers, in particular,are politically well connected, both individually and through their powerful political action committee.

You find the same type of slanted reporting throughout the story.

ProPublica reported that 33 lagoons “overflowed” during Hurricane Florence. But it failed to mention that the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality correctly characterized the overflow as “diluted storm water” in a public meeting last week. The fact is that more than 98% of the state’s 3,300 lagoons came through the hurricane just fine.

ProPublica wrote about the nuisance lawsuits against Smithfield Foods. But it didn’t mention the lawsuits were started by predatory out-of-state lawyers who promised big paydays for those who signed up. The attorneys were thrown off the case for their unethical behavior in recruiting clients.

And ProPublica wrote how in a state “where Confederate Monuments still stand,” agriculture has its roots “in the plantation system and slavery.”

Is that unbiased investigative journalism? It sure sounds a lot like the work of someone with an activist agenda.

ProPublica’s cheap shots went on and on. And The News and Observer published every single one of them.