California poultry farmers are seeing a spike in avian flu, forcing millions of birds to be destroyed

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December should have been the most profitable month of the year for Liberty Ducks, a poultry farm in Sonoma County. Instead, the 31-year-old business was suddenly face to face with a possible shutdown.

“There was never going to be a good time for this to hit, but during the holidays was especially hard,” said Jennifer Reichardt of Liberty Ducks. The farm, she said, has been “crippled” by the outbreak.

In December, the farm was one of nine locations in Sonoma County infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza, also known as avian flu. As a result, poultry farmers in the county have been forced to destroy more than 1 million birds while trying to quarantine their flocks to curb the outbreak.

The outbreak has been ongoing since 2022, but its sudden surge in December has meant regional restaurants in the winery-rich region are seeing their supplies of poultry dwindle. Experts warn this may only be the beginning of a spike in California in the two-year-old bird flu outbreak.

“Restaurants are looking for product,” said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation.

The lingering disease has yet to affect prices or supply across the state as a whole, Mattos said, given the poultry available from other counties and outside the state. But restaurants, stores and other wholesalers who prefer to use local sources are suddenly seeing their supply dwindle.

“Everyone is looking to see what they can do to prevent it even more,” Mattos said.

Liberty Ducks supplies ducks to Bay Area restaurants and more than 200 wholesalers. But because the company’s locations are under quarantine, the farm can’t start new production, Reichardt said.

“Our business will be at a standstill for at least two months until the quarantine is lifted or we find other locations,” she said.

Poultry companies have been feeling the effects of the avian flu since February 2022, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture first detected the virus in commercial and backyard flocks.

Since then, more than 79 million birds across the U.S have been affected in 47 states. In California, the virus has affected 37 commercial and 22 backyard flocks, totaling 5.4 million birds, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Nearing two years since the outbreak began, the avian pandemic has not gone by unnoticed by consumers either.

Last year, the outbreak helped make egg prices skyrocket across the country. In January 2023, a dozen large eggs jumped to a high of $7.37, when compared to $2.35 the year before. The USDA said that while demand for eggs was surging in December 2022, the avian flu was cutting the supply; in the last week of that month, there were about 29% fewer eggs than at the beginning of 2022.

A higher incidence of highly pathogenic avian influenza is common during this time of year because of the migratory patterns of wild birds, which carry the virus as they fly from the Arctic to California, said Dr. Maurice Pitesky, associate professor at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine whose research focuses on the disease.

Unfortunately, the same climate and geography that makes poultry farming popular in some areas is what draws in wild birds like ducks and geese, carrying the flu with them into the state. The virus can pass from one animal to another through saliva, mucus or feces.

“Wildlife can bring this virus into their farms because the virus is so infectious,” Pitesky said.

Farmers have tried to keep their flocks safe through bio-security practices, such requiring clean footwear before workers enter a farm to keep feces from contaminating the area under the shoes, Mattos said. Several big farms also try to reduce risk by prohibiting their workers from owning backyard flocks.

This past month, however, poultry farmers in Northern California have been particularly hit by the virus.

“I’m not sure if it’s a more virulent strain or what,” Mattos said. “The industry expects it to come and show up, we just didn’t expect it to be in big numbers.”

According to the USDA, 11 flocks in California have tested positive for the virus in the past 30 days, affecting more than 3.3 million birds.

In Sonoma County, the effect has been significant.

Nine poultry in sites in southern Sonoma County have been infected with the virus, requiring more than a million birds to be euthanized to prevent further spread, according to the county.

On Dec. 5, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors declared a local emergency because of the disease. Flocks that have been infected have been put in quarantine, and county officials are hoping to curb the spread of the virus.

The flu’s effect in the county and region is still unclear, but officials are concerned that the consequences could ripple through affected farms, workers, restaurants and markets that rely on the farms’ eggs, meat and jobs.

A spokesperson for Sonoma County said the county has not yet done an economic impact study, but is still focusing resources on containing the outbreak.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, five California counties — Fresno, Marin, Merced, San Joaquin and Sonoma — have active avian flu infections.

The flu could be especially damaging to businesses like Liberty Ducks that are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“After COVID, we were already in such a tight financial space, this really could have been the final blow,” said Reichardt.

She and her brother set up a GoFundMe campaign to keep the business afloat, and have raised more than $184,000 so far.

“The community outreach is not only letting us continue on and help with cash flow, but also mentally gives us such a lift to fight on,” Reichardt said.

Some farms can also apply for federal compensation for the value of lost birds, but Mattos said it is not enough to cover what farmers could have made from their flocks.

For now, farmers and backyard flock owners are being urged to take precautions and keep their birds isolated from exposure.

And depending on this year’s rains, poultry farmers may be seeing just the first effects of the outbreak this year, Pitesky warns.

“If it’s a wet year, unfortunately, [wild birds] will probably stay here until April and May,” he said. “Most likely, they’ll be dealing with this for several more months.”

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