A California Department of Food and Agriculture technician tested chickens for avian influenza viruses in poultry in 2006 at the Best Live Poultry and Fish Store in Sylmar, California (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
The Reichardt family has devoted the past 30 years to perfecting a line of ducks known for their succulent pink meat and well-suited to the slower, less stressful raising of a small Petaluma farm.
Now their precious poultry is delivered not to the Bay Area’s best Michelin-starred restaurants, but to the county landfill.
Avian flu swept through Sonoma County’s historic poultry region, forcing the culling of 1.1 million birds and inflicting heartache and economic disaster on the Reichardts and other small family farmers in the former “egg capital of the world”.
“We’re still figuring this out,” said Jennifer Reichardt, 34, a fifth-generation farmer who was required by law to euthanize 4,900 of her beloved “Liberty Ducks” after detection. of the virus on December 1st. 7. “There will never be a good time for this to happen, but around the holidays it’s especially hard.”
At least six neighboring farms in Reichardt’s bucolic Liberty Valley, west of Petaluma, are also affected. These include Sunrise Farms, a fourth-generation farm and the largest egg producer in Sonoma County, with approximately 500,000 birds.
The domino effect on other local businesses, including feed stores and trucking, is incalculable.
“It’s disastrous, a big chain reaction,” said Bobby Falcon of Hunt & Behrens Feed Mill and Store, first opened in 1921 along the Petaluma River, which lost about 40 percent of its business in selling 24 ton loads of corn and soybeans. made from poultry feed from local farms. “What happens to them is up to us and then the grain traders. …It’s filtered about 10 or 11 times.
A state of emergency was declared by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to help mitigate the effects of the disaster, including providing aid to businesses. The county also designated a special waste section of its central landfill to dispose of birds, typically killed by closing barns and carbon dioxide supply lines. State and federal authorities provide expertise, although it is limited.
Until recently, California poultry farms seemed to have been spared the crisis. Over the past three years, a deadly and highly contagious virus known as H5N1 has circled the globe, causing widespread devastation to birds in more than 80 countries.
After its appearance in 2020, the virus triggered significant epidemics in Europe, Africa and Asia. It arrived in the United States in January 2022 and has taken over the nation’s largest concentrations of poultry farms in the East and Midwest, driving up egg prices.
Leaping like a stone on water, the virus landed in Merced County in October, then in Petaluma’s Liberty Valley in November.
Despite a rapid response – biosecurity measures at farm entrances, immediate slaughter of potentially infected animals, quarantine of affected farms – the disease continued to spread.
In just two months, outbreaks have claimed the lives of an estimated 4.5 million chickens, ducks and turkeys in five California counties. Of those, more than 2 million were layers, 1.5 million were broilers and the rest were ducks and turkeys, according to Bill Mattos of the California Poultry Federation, based in Modesto.
What’s devastating isn’t just the onerous task of killing the birds and the huge financial losses, Mattos said. Farmers are not allowed to start restocking their herds until after 120 days, to avoid repeat infection. Then these fluffy new chicks need weeks to mature. Adjacent farms are under strict quarantine measures, unable to move or process the birds, causing them to lose valuable contracts with buyers. Meanwhile, costs are rising.
Poultry was once a thriving business in this region, where the world’s first incubator was invented in the late 1800s, according to Eric Stanley of the Sonoma County Museum.
“That really sparked the explosion of the egg industry. There were hundreds and hundreds of farms,” he said. The Petaluma River and nearby railroads provided easy access to San Francisco’s affluent markets.
But as the state’s highways expanded, Sonoma County lost its poultry farms to the much larger and cheaper Central Valley, he said. Improved truck suspension systems could smoothly ship eggs across the country.
The region became famous for what it is today: a grape monoculture.
To survive, poultry farmers have created a new niche: Bay Area grocery stores and restaurants.
“They preserve our heritage and our traditions,” Stanley said. “They preserve the heritage elements that once gave character to the whole region.”
John Reichardt set about breeding a meatier, bigger and tastier animal. His flock of white Liberty Ducks, a type of Pekin duck, started small in 1992 in his garage, then grew to a barn, then several barns.
The ducks are free of antibiotics and hormones, with fresh straw to perch on and space to move around. While most ducks are sold at six weeks old, Liberty Ducks are raised at nine weeks old. Lean, but with a distinct layer of fat under the flavorful skin, they are prized by restaurants such as Napa’s French Laundry, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and Kato in Los Angeles.
Experts suspect the animals were infected by migratory wild birds, although the virus can also be spread through contaminated agricultural equipment, vehicle tires or shoes.
Sonoma County, with many small, scattered bodies of water, lies along the Pacific Flyway, where migratory bird populations increase tenfold in winter.
“The main reservoir of the virus is waterfowl, ducks and geese that like the very rich habitat that California provides,” said veterinarian Maurice Pitesky of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, who studies the spread of avian diseases. The program detected the virus in wild birds in 14 California counties during this migratory season.
New research suggests that California’s shrinking wildlife is forcing wild birds to congregate in dairy lagoons, irrigation canals and wastewater treatment ponds, he said. California has lost about 95% of its historic wetlands.
“We concentrate waterfowl in smaller areas, which makes it easier to transmit disease,” Pitesky said. “It also brings these wild animals closer to our commercial poultry facilities. Potentially infected birds are found right next to barns and ranches.
But poultry farms have also recently attracted unwanted human visitors: Berkeley-based members of the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, who target farms with protests and organized raids. Last month, a member of the group was sentenced to prison for protesting at another Liberty Valley duck farm and at Sunrise Farms in 2018 and 2019.
Sonoma County Farm Bureau officials say the group also entered those farms in November, during the virus’s incubation period. The activists have not been charged for these events. In an email to the Press Democrat, a member of the group blamed the outbreaks on farms because of how the birds are housed and other factors.
“You can’t prove it one way or another, but you also can’t disprove it,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the district where the farms are located. “It created a lot of anxiety and frustration.”
Until winter ends, the virus will continue to haunt Liberty Valley. Fear follows workers who feed healthy birds, wearing hazmat suits and disposable booties. Formerly occupied farms remain silent, with “Keep Out” signs barring visitors.
“We are facing our biggest challenge yet,” said Jennifer Reichardt, who created a GoFundMe campaign to keep their farm afloat while working to keep her other properties safe. Supporters were generous in their response, boosting the family’s morale.
“There’s a huge industry here that’s in danger of disappearing,” Reichardt said. “We are focused not only on preserving our business but also all the family farms in the area. We hope to work together, move forward, break through and survive. »