few years ago, farmers under contract with Smithfield Foods began building an industrial hog facility four miles north of David Remkes’ home in Flowell, Utah. Not long after, a developer submitted a proposal with the County Commission for another operation in the same area that would house more than 30,000 hogs at a time.
“I thought [Smithfield] would never come here. It seemed like everyone I knew didn’t want hogs here,” said Remkes, a house remodeler who has lived in Millard County, about 150 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, for 40 years. “But they’re really, really expanding.”
Remkes and his wife Holly, who have four children, were concerned about odor and groundwater contamination, primarily because they had watched Smithfield’s massive hog farms grow to dominate the landscape in Beaver County, just south of where they live.
In 2017, Beaver County ranked No. 1 in Utah for the number of hogs sold—about 1.4 million—despite the fact that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) counted just 17 hog farms within its borders. And while the concentration began as far back as the 1990s, Smithfield is presenting more recent growth in a novel way: as climate action.
The county’s newest farm complex, which can confine close to half a million hogs in one area, is a part of the company’s Align Renewable Natural Gas initiative, created in conjunction with Dominion Energy. At these operations, methane that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere from manure lagoons at each concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) is captured, converted, and funneled into natural gas pipelines, thereby cutting emissions and providing an alternative energy source all at once.
As a greenhouse gas, methane’s warming potential outpaces that of carbon dioxide, and the recent, damning U.N. climate change report recommended reducing the potent gas as a critical step to slowing climate change. On Friday, the U.S. and the E.U. pledged to cut methane emissions by 30 percent in the next decade. While the World Resources Institute estimates manure management accounts for only 7 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production globally, those emissions increased by 66 percent in the U.S. between 1990 and 2017, primarily due to hog and dairy lagoons.