Avian Flu Ravages California Poultry Farms: Devastating Losses and Lingering Challenges

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In a harrowing turn of events last month, Mike Weber, owner of Sunrise Farms, faced the grim reality every poultry farmer dreads — his chickens tested positive for avian flu. Abiding by government regulations, Weber’s company, located in Sonoma County north of San Francisco, had to make the heart-wrenching decision to cull its entire flock of egg-laying hens, totaling a staggering 550,000 birds. The move aimed to curb the spread of the disease to other farms, dealing a severe blow to the once-thriving poultry industry in the region.

“It’s a trauma. We’re all going through grief as a result of it,” expressed Weber, standing amidst the desolation of an empty hen house. “Petaluma is known as the Egg Basket of the World. It’s devastating to see that egg basket go up in flames.”

The highly contagious avian flu has taken a toll on California, causing officials in Sonoma County to declare a state of emergency. Over the past two months, nearly a dozen commercial farms in the region had to cull over 1 million birds to control the outbreak, resulting in significant economic losses for farmers, workers, and their customers.

Merced County in Central California is also grappling with outbreaks at large commercial egg-producing farms, compounding the challenges faced by the poultry industry. Experts attribute the spread of bird flu to migratory birds such as ducks and geese, which can carry the virus without showing symptoms, easily transmitting it to chicken and turkey farms and backyard flocks through droppings and nasal discharges.

California poultry farms are now implementing rigorous biosecurity measures to contain the spread of the disease. State Veterinarian Annette Jones has urged farmers to keep their flocks indoors until June, even for organic chickens that typically have outdoor access.

The impact of the avian flu outbreak has been felt beyond the farms, causing a spike in egg prices in the San Francisco Bay Area over the holidays. However, supermarkets and restaurants managed to find alternative suppliers from outside the region, alleviating the short-term shortage.

While bird flu has been a longstanding issue, the current outbreak that began in early 2022 has led to the culling of nearly 82 million birds in 47 U.S. states, primarily egg-laying chickens. The virus has prompted a doubling of egg prices, reaching a peak of $4.82 per dozen in January 2023. Despite the return to normalcy as egg producers rebuilt their flocks and controlled outbreaks, the poultry industry continues to grapple with the repercussions.

Maurice Pitesky, a poultry expert at the University of California, Davis, emphasizes the global nature of the challenge, stating, “I think this is an existential issue for the commercial poultry industry. The virus is on every continent, except for Australia at this point.”

Pitesky also notes that climate change is exacerbating the risk of outbreaks, as shifting weather patterns disrupt the migratory patterns of wild birds. The current outbreak in California, impacting over 7 million chickens in about 40 commercial flocks and 24 backyard flocks, underscores the need for continued vigilance.

The poultry industry is particularly concerned about the rising number of backyard chickens that could become infected and spread avian flu to commercial farms. Rodrigo Gallardo, a UC Davis researcher, advises owners of backyard chickens to implement strict hygiene practices and promptly test any chickens showing unusual symptoms.

The plight of Ettamarie Peterson, a retired teacher in Petaluma with a flock of 50 chickens, reflects the challenges faced by backyard poultry owners. Peterson, worried about wild birds transmitting the virus, expresses concern, saying, “If your flock has any cases of it, you have to destroy the whole flock.”

Sunrise Farms, with a legacy spanning more than a century, was not spared from the avian flu despite implementing stringent biosecurity measures. Weber describes the devastating impact, stating, “The virus got to the birds so bad and so quickly you walked in and the birds were just dead.” After euthanizing over half a million chickens, the farm faces an arduous cleanup and disinfection process.

Weber remains hopeful that federal regulators will grant approval to bring chicks back to the farm in spring. However, the road to recovery is long, requiring five months for the hens to mature enough to resume egg-laying. While two farms co-owned by Sunrise Farms have avoided infection, Weber acknowledges the challenges ahead, emphasizing, “We have a long road ahead. We’re going to make another run of it and try to keep this family of employees together because they’ve worked so hard to build this into the company that it is.”