Tradeoffs for Managing Hog Waste

Ashlyn KaranStudent: Ashlyn Karan T’12
Hometown: Pinehurst, NC
Research Focus: Managing hog waste using technologies
Major: Public policy/Environmental science and policy

Mentor: Alex Pfaff, Associate Professor of Public Policy, Economics and Environment “Ashlyn's interests and intuition have led her to a great problem -- managing hog waste using technologies. It matters for a lot of people. It is close to home. And it involves a real decision challenge due to economic and political tradeoffs as well as uncertainty about future innovations and realities of their implementation. “

Can you explain the goal of your research? I’m hoping to determine what hog farmers’ perceptions of waste management systems are. I’m modeling this after a study that was done in 2003 so that we can see the change since then. Since 2003, there have been five sustainable technologies developed, but only 11 out of 2200 farms in North Carolina have actually adopted one. I’m interested in looking at what farmers know about lagoons, which are pools of hog waste, and about alternative systems, and what their perceptions and feelings about them are.

Why would the results to your research be significant? It could help to design sustainable systems in the future, because we don’t know what farmers are looking for in a waste management system. It would help in terms of crafting policy, to try to encourage farmers to adopt alternative systems and it would also be beneficial in terms of trying to figure out where North Carolina’s information system is going right or wrong. Farmers don’t really seem to know there are other options. The question is, are we actually doing an effective job from the policy world of communicating with farmers?

How did you get started in research? I’ve always been really interested in service. I’m the president of WOODS, which is an environmental education organization. We work with a lot of after-school centers, and I also help out a teacher at a high school nearby with his outdoor education class. I think it’s really important for Duke to engage with the rest of the community. One of the reasons that I wanted to do my thesis in North Carolina is just because I did want to be able to do something that’s useful for the community that I’m living in.

What was a highlight of your experience? I was really surprised that farmers didn’t think that lagoons had a negative environmental impact. I would have thought that it was obvious the impact they had, especially with the giant lagoon floods
that we had in 1995 and 1996. I was also really surprised that no one had tried to answer this question since the initial survey [was administered] in 2003. I think that if you’re trying to figure out policy about an issue like hog farming – and we’re the second-biggest hog-farming state in the country – the pork lobby or environmental groups need to ask these questions of the farmers. I think that [both sides] would rather try to solve the problem based on their preconceived notions of each other, rather than trying to go to the people who know the most -- the farmers.

Were there any significant faculty mentors along your journey in research? Ken Rogerson, the chair of the public policy department, really encouraged me to do research. I took Public Policy 114 with him, which is where I started thinking about the hog farmers. Also, I studied abroad in Venice, and he was there teaching a class in Venice, so I got to know him relatively well then.

What first interested you about the issues focused on by your research? I decided to become a vegetarian when I was 15, and since then I’ve read a lot of books about being vegetarian, and in reading those I read a lot about how animals are raised in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and a lot about farms themselves. That exposure made me more interested in food production in general, and especially the farmers.

Are there any other programs and/or issues that you are involved with? This summer I’m going to be working with a non-governmental organization in India on agricultural sustainability. I’m also taking a class on Food and Energy right now with Charlotte Clark, and my semester-long project for that has been on water security in a village in India. We actually have been working on that with university students there. We meet with them twice a week online, and they give us a lot of information on the ground that we couldn’t get otherwise because they’re in close proximity to the village that we’re trying to work on. [This is part of a program called the Acara Challenge.] It’s actually a competition that a lot of universities participate in, so our goal is to create a social entrepreneurship-type business plan that also deals with the water security problem. There are four people on each of the Duke teams and there are four Duke teams total, two on water and two on food. It’s a service learning class and a lot of the students we’re working with are in an engineering class, so it’s really collaborative.