Specter of bird flu hovers over poultry farms
VERNALIS, Calif. – Andrew Carlson cupped a day-old chick in his palm as a sea of 25,000 yellow fluff balls peeped and pecked around him.Placing the chick on the ground, he checked automated food and temperature controls in the cavernous henhouse west of Modesto, then returned to his truck and unzipped his full-body biosecurity suit.Instinctively, Carlson reached for a bottle in the door pocket, squirted a dollop of clear gel into his calloused hand and rubbed it in.”Farmers using hand sanitizers,” he said. “Crazy, huh?”In the age of bird flu, the ideal poultry or egg farm would be more controlled than a prison, more sanitary than a hospital and more remote than a desert island.Reality is not far off. The new tools of the trade are locked gates, visitor logs and antiviral truck washes. Failure to wear biosecurity gear is a firing offense.Like family doctors, Carlson’s ranch managers swab inside chicken beaks and hindquarters each week to collect lab samples as the birds squirm and squawk like children.A single diseased bird milling around a crowded poultry barn or sneezing inside a cage at a large egg farm could set off a chain reaction that wipes out millions of others.It has happened in Asia, where more than 120 million birds have died or been culled due to the spread of the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Now, the virus has spread to Europe and Siberia, and U.S. farmers are bracing for the possibility that it will arrive in North America.Carlson, 25, and his wife, Theresa, pregnant with their first child, live on the farm he grew up on in a tiny red house that belonged to his late grandfather.He never considered straying from the family business, Central Coast Fryer Farms, which produces about 10 million chickens a year on 17 ranches.He keeps his grandfather’s hours, rising by 3:30 a.m. and returning home at 6:30 p.m. or later.In most other ways, his grandfather wouldn’t recognize Carlson’s approach to chicken farming.He majored in law and society at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and studied macroeconomics at Sweden’s Lund University to understand global agriculture.When he returned as his company’s chief operating officer three years ago, Carlson realized that his studies neglected the key topic in modern poultry and egg farming: biology.”When you grow up on a ranch, you know about predators – coyotes and such. But I didn’t imagine the main predator would be like this,” he said, indicating a microscopic speck between thumb and forefinger. “A virus.”(Begin optional trim)Carlson meets friends every morning for a predawn meal at the Farmers’ Den cafe in Crows Landing, one-quarter of a mile from his home, as his dad has done for nearly 50 years. The owner hides a key for regulars so they can put on coffee if they arrive before 4 a.m.Some co-workers and friends make the 20-mile drive from Modesto for the morning ritual, to catch up on chickens, wives and how the high school football team is doing.After breakfast, the friends avoid each other like the plague. The easy days of neighbors stopping by to swap stories or tools are long gone.”I tell farmers, `Don’t let anyone near your birds,”‘ said Carol Cardona, a poultry veterinarian with the University of California, Davis. “Friendship is a risk factor for disease.”(End optional trim)Sick birds sneeze and cough just like people. But sick birds don’t travel. People spread the viruses from farm to farm. That’s why ranchers forbid farmhands to visit other farms or live bird markets, or to own pet birds.Merlyn Garber, who owns a small egg farm in Salida, a few miles northwest of Modesto, installed an antiseptic truck wash when a less dangerous form of bird flu than the H5N1 strain hit California’s Central Valley in 2002.Asked if his neighbors have done likewise, he shrugged: “I don’t know, because I don’t visit them.”Farmers have been careful about biosecurity for decades, but their rude awakening came in September 2002, when exotic Newcastle disease, a flulike illness that kills chickens and can cause eye infections in people, swept through Southern California.The outbreak took nine months to eradicate at a cost of more than $160 million.If the virus had moved north, the damage could have been catastrophic. More than 80 percent of the state’s $2.5-billion poultry and egg industry is crowded into a strip of the Central Valley between Highway 99 and Interstate 5, according to the California Poultry Federation.(Begin optional trim)Carlson was 22, fresh out of college and running a poultry company with dozens of employees when the biggest agricultural-disease crisis California had seen in decades struck Southern California.”If Newcastle was to get introduced here, the way the wind whips through the valley, it could have taken off like wildfire,” he said. “After going through that, few other things would scare me.”Carlson still dreams about it. “Biosecurity has become clear-and-away the No. 1 concern,” he said.”We have eight chicken houses, and they aren’t worth anything without chickens in them,” Carlson said.(End optional trim)Since 2002, Carlson has tripled his spending on biosecurity to well more than $100,000 per year. Such costs are one reason most small bird farms have been replaced with efficient and secure chicken-growing factories.Just south of Merced in El Nido is a complex of 64 industrial low-rise metal warehouses run by Foster Farms, the state’s largest poultry grower.Each building holds 18,000 to 20,000 chickens, which live their entire six-week lives milling together in a giant room on a bed of soft rice hulls or pine shavings a few inches deep.They see farmers only occasionally. The bird’s diet of water, corn and soy is released into dishes along computer-controlled feed lines.The complex seals in more than 1 million chickens, yet from a few feet away, the only audible chirps come from crows perched on nearby power lines.Nearby ponds were drained and grass was cleared to eliminate hiding places for rodents and oases for wild birds that could carry a virus. The only neighbor for miles around is a small herd of cattle.The scorched-earth design reflects the gravity of the threat facing the $29-billion U.S. egg and poultry industry.Bird flu has ravaged farms throughout Asia, and international health officials are worried that the virus could mutate into a form passed easily among people, sparking a pandemic. As of the middle of December, 137 people have caught the disease, according to the World Health Organization. Nearly all the victims, including 70 who died, had close contact with sick birds.Many American farmers blame the severity of bird flu in places including Vietnam on the common intermingling of sick birds, pigs and people on backyard farms. They regard the risk here of the virus jumping from farm to farm – or from birds to people – as remote.”We don’t live with our chickens,” said Kim Hernandez of Haley Farms, a fryer producer in Modesto.At the end of a driveway a short drive from Haley Farms, the sound of clucking is unmistakable. The nearby dwelling is not a farmhouse, but an upscale suburban-style home.Refugees from the San Francisco Bay Area are flocking to the countryside, lured by peace and quiet and affordable land that’s still close enough to commute to San Francisco. And like peasants in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, they like to keep a few birds.”People have chickens as pets and a type of therapy,” said Francine Bradley, a UC Davis poultry expert. “They come home from work and let their chickens out and watch them walk around. It’s a stress reliever.”The backyard farms pose a much more serious biosecurity problem than poultry farms.Many millions of backyard chickens are kept in the Central Valley, as well as in the dense cores of California’s cities, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The birds sparked the Newcastle outbreak in 2002.Bradley runs an outreach program designed to find and test backyard birds for diseases. She frequently travels to farmers markets, 4H clubs and feed stores to spread the word about biosecurity.But the economic incentives are low. A chicken can be replaced for about $2.She runs a similar effort for birds bred for cockfighting, another Newcastle culprit. Unlike other chickens, fighting cocks are vagabonds, constantly traveling to find worthy opponents. A sick fighter can become an avian Typhoid Mary.The blood sport is banned in 48 states, including California, but raising and selling the birds – coveted for their pedigrees and admired for their regal beauty – is legal. They are displayed at county fairs and sold for up to $1,000 for legal bouts in Louisiana and New Mexico or secret fights here.Fighting-cock breeders want to keep their valuable animals healthy and are working to clean up biosecurity problems.Despite those efforts, some poultry farmers believe backyard chickens or fighting cocks eventually will cause another disastrous outbreak. Such birds are too hard to control.Any move to crack down on cockfighting could push it further underground, where it could be a bigger hazard. And you can’t ban pets.”How do you stop people from owning chickens if they want to?” Carlson said. “It’s a free country.”Farmers see their own bunker mentality – sealing off their birds from the outside world – as the best response. It has led some to rethink a booming niche market: free-range chickens.Such birds pose a challenge because they sometimes mingle with migratory birds, which experts believe carry bird flu.Nearly 40 percent of Carlson’s business is free-range. He erects fences and nets to isolate his flocks. But wild birds are clever opportunists when it comes to food and water, and sometimes find a way into his pens.Carlson agreed with several veterinarians who said the growing popularity of free-range chicken among upscale consumers is partly based on a fantasy that free chickens are happier chickens, and taste better too.(Begin optional trim)The free-range areas at Carlson’s Vernalis ranch are fenced 40-by-15-yard rectangles of scruffy dirt next to the chicken houses.In good weather, the chickens venture out through a small door and huddle together around food and water stations. Many farms have eliminated outdoor feeding to reduce contact with wild birds. The chickens usually stay indoors, eating below the overhead gas heaters that maintain the coops at 70 degrees.As the specter of bird flu descends on the nation’s poultry farms, farmers and vets seem to agree that maintaining the free-range myth, however lucrative, might be too risky.”You want to give your consumers what they want,” Carlson said. But like the rest of the poultry industry in the age of bird flu, he added, “free range is subject to change.”(End optional trim)After three generations in the chicken business, Carlson and his family are used to change.Disease can sweep through the industry. Tastes change. Prices can dive for years on end, popping up just enough now and then to keep businesses afloat.This year, he figures, is just barely above break-even. He believes that fears of bird flu have begun to depress prices, even though the virus has not reached the United States.Despite the troubles, it’s still a life that he’d like to pass on to a fourth generation of Carlsons.”Once you’ve got feathers in your blood, it’s hard to get them out,” he said.