I’ve been watching with great concern the outbreak of H5N2 highly pathogenic avian influenza in Minnesota turkey confinements. As of today, nine facilities in the state have been affected, including in Lac Qui Parle County, which borders Big Stone, where we live.
I raise what the Minnesota Department of Agriculture refers to as a “backyard flock” of free range laying hens, whose eggs I market at our local food co-op. While it’s only a couple dozen hens (and a couple of roosters), 25 more hens are in the brooder growing into their role on the farm. The broilers will arrive at the end of the month, and we’re trying a few turkeys this year, too. The demand for my farm-fresh eggs has grown since I started selling them last summer, so I am expanding my flock to accommodate that market. The meat birds are for our own consumption, but we’re considering exploring that market as well.
However, we also live within three miles of a turkey confinement facility, and since I heard about the H5N2 outbreak and six-mile “control area” for all poultry flocks (not just turkeys–though they are most susceptible) in Lac Qui Parle County, I’ve been on pins and needles. What if my birds get sick? What if there’s an outbreak down the road?
From what I understand, if a flock gets infected, it gets slaughtered. Being in the control area near an outbreak area means testing of the birds and a quarantine on them and their products for at least a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if we had to figure out what to do with all our eggs for a few weeks, but the collective effect on producers and markets in affected areas could be a lot bigger.
USDA-APHIS recommendations on biosecurity precautions for cage-free poultry include, “Identifying high risk areas that include wetlands along migratory flyways or other areas where wild waterfowl or shorebirds congregate…” and “implementing preventive measures for these high-risk areas [including] keeping birds indoors or restricting outside open access by maintaining outdoor enclosures covered with solid roofs and wire mesh or netted sides.”
We live in the Mississippi flyway in the prairie and pothole biome, which is one of the biggest waterfowl migration and production areas in the country. In the past month, thousands of geese and ducks have passed over our farm, and over the region as a whole. According to the recommendations, poultry in our area should simply not be allowed access to the outdoors–or if they are, they should be fully enclosed–basically, confined.
Except the worst outbreaks of this disease in our region have not been in free-range poultry; they’ve been in large scale confined flocks that have implemented the above protective measures. Three large scale turkey barns in Stearns County have tested positive, but so far none of the approximately 80 backyard flocks in the control area around those confinements have shown signs of H5N2. Thirteen backyard flocks in the control area of the affected Lac Qui Parle County turkey operation were tested and found disease free. The 30 backyard flocks tested in Pope County were released from quarantine as well.
In this week’s Star Tribune, Mike Hughlett closed an article about the outbreaks in Kandiyohi and Stearns counties with this quote:
“Curiously, back-yard turkey flocks in Minnesota haven’t been hit hard by the disease so far. “They are at greater risk,” a puzzled [DNR Wildlife Health Supervisor Michelle] Carstensen said. Unlike commercial birds, they don’t spend their whole lives in barns and are more exposed to wild bird droppings.”
With my fingers crossed for the health of my, and my neighbors’ flocks, I want to suggest that maybe non-confined birds are in a better position to avoid or overcome illness because unlike commercial birds, they don’t spend their whole lives in barns. They have shelter, but they also get outside, they get fresh air and exercise, and they get exposed to beneficial (and also not-so-beneficial) microbes that help them develop a healthy immune system. They are not crammed into a “disinfected” space with several thousand birds of the same breed, waiting for a pathogen to sneak (or get tracked) through biosecurity and wipe them all out.
We live on a major migratory waterfowl route, and that isn’t going to change. Neither is the problem of human error and breaches in biosecurity. Avian influenza outbreaks will keep coming with the migrations—are we going to slaughter and quarantine hundreds of thousands of birds every spring? What about the fall migration? What is the cost to taxpayers, affected producers, and markets?
Instead of racing to plug gaps in the existing system, maybe it’s time to question the system itself. Raising thousands of birds (or cows, or hogs) in a confined space may be considered “efficient” in some circles, but it results in a high stress environment that sets out the welcome mat for disease, as well as concentrating waste in a way that pollutes rather than enriches.
Meanwhile, the market for free range and heritage breed turkey and poultry products continues to grow, as more consumers turn away from Broad Breasted Whites produced in a building alongside twenty thousand of their “closest” friends. What if, instead of being the state that produces the most turkeys, we became the state that produced the best?
What if, instead of cramming more turkeys into bigger barns, we tried having more farmers on the land to raise them?
Rebecca White, a Community Based Food Systems Program organizer for the Land Stewardship Project, lives and farms in western Minnesota’s Big Stone County. She originally wrote this essay for her Listening Stones Farm blog.