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News / Northwest

‘It’s a killer’: Monroe farm loses flock to bird flu

Farmer says government rules are unfair to small operations like hers

By Jacqueline Allison, Everett Herald
Published: January 26, 2023, 6:03am
4 Photos
Elaine Kellner, 42, poses for a photo at Hearth and Haven Farm in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. The farm lost its entire flock of 174 ducks to avian flu. Now Kellner is calling for changes to the federal policy of mass culls.
Elaine Kellner, 42, poses for a photo at Hearth and Haven Farm in Monroe, Washington on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. The farm lost its entire flock of 174 ducks to avian flu. Now Kellner is calling for changes to the federal policy of mass culls. (Annie Barker / The Herald) (annie barker/The Herald) Photo Gallery

MONROE — At Hearth and Haven Farm, you’d normally hear the happy chatter of ducks and a goose noisily announcing himself.

On a recent Wednesday, the only bird sounds were crow caws.

That was the eerie scene nearly two weeks after the farm’s flock of 170 ducks and four geese was euthanized due to an avian flu outbreak. Farmer Elaine Kellner still tears up as she thinks about it.

Kellner, 42, started the farm in 2017 and found a niche selling pasture-raised duck eggs. You’d find the eggs at Double DD Meats in Mountlake Terrace, Ken’s Market in Greenwood and in gourmet dishes at Seattle-area restaurants.

Now, the farm has lost its primary income for the next year. Kellner will have to wait until late April to hatch new ducks due to a 120-day quarantine order. And the new ducks won’t start laying until the following spring.

“Even if we jumped right back in, we wouldn’t have a single egg to sell until March 2024,” she said. “It’s a killer. How can anyone possibly withstand that?”

She expects to receive compensation, but only a fraction of what the business would normally bring in.

The highly contagious avian flu killed 57.8 million birds in commercial and backyard flocks in the U.S. last year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The number includes birds who died from the disease and those euthanized because they were in contact with infected birds. Avian flu poses little risk to people.

In Snohomish County, there have been eight outbreaks since May.

Excruciating experience

Hearth and Haven Farm’s case has gained attention as Kellner described on her Facebook page the excruciating experience of losing her birds. Three of the ducks who died were with her since the start.

She posted a letter on her website raising concerns about the federal policy of mass culls. She told The Daily Herald she wants to see more research on genetic resistance to avian flu, plus research on vaccines and treatment. She also argues that small farms hit with avian flu need better compensation.

She’s asked others to send the letter to their federal representatives.

Kellner first noticed signs of illness in one of her birds on Dec. 21. The next day, she said, three others were ill, with symptoms of lethargy, nasal discharge and no appetite. They had stopped laying eggs.

She reported the sick birds to the state Department of Agriculture, which “got back to us right away to test,” she said. The first round of samples were lost in the mail. A second round of tests were taken after the Christmas holiday.

She received the results on Dec. 28: Her birds were positive for avian flu. A crew returned the next day to euthanize the entire flock.

It’s a federal requirement to euthanize a flock when any birds test positive, both to “prevent the spread of the disease and because it is humane; dying of bird flu is a slow and painful death for the bird,” the state agriculture department says on its website.

Kellner said she noticed some birds became very ill while others showed mild or no symptoms. She estimated 90 percent of the flock recovered.

“The farm’s five-year breeding program had developed a number of hybrid breeds that showed significant resistance to the virus,” she wrote in the letter, arguing more funding for studies is needed.

Mike Stepien, a spokesperson with USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, said scientists have researched genetic resistance to avian flu but there are no resistant breeds yet. Vaccines are also not ready yet.

“None of the existing avian influenza vaccines completely prevent birds from becoming infected or prevent them from transmitting the virus to other birds,” he said in an email.

Stepien said ducks and other waterfowl are natural hosts for the virus and often show fewer symptoms than other poultry. He noted flock depopulation has shown to be “the only effective approach to preventing the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza.”

“A bird might not show any evidence of disease but might still be shedding virus, infecting other birds,” he said.

Kellner expects to receive a one-time payment of about $6,000, or $35 per duck, from the USDA for the birds she lost. The compensation is based on the weight class of the birds.

The payment doesn’t come close to the revenue the farm would have generated. Kellner said her highest producing ducks lay up to 300 eggs, or 25 dozen, a year. At $12 a dozen, that’s about $300 per bird.

The farm is also left with $10,000 worth of organic feed, which it can’t sell or give away due to the 120-day quarantine order. The USDA will not reimburse her for the unopened bags. Kellner said the feed will be expired by the time the farm has mature ducks again.

Stepien said the USDA will only reimburse for contaminated materials that must be destroyed.

Disadvantage

As a backyard flock, Hearth and Haven Farm is faced with a longer timeline to hatch new ducks compared to larger indoor facilities.

The difference is that indoor facilities can be disinfected and cleaned, while outdoors areas cannot, Stepien said. He said indoor facilities can be released from quarantine after sitting empty for 14 days and a negative test for bird flu. Backyard flocks, meanwhile, must wait 120 days.

Kellner said the rules put small farms at a disadvantage.

“This small Washington family farm has been driven out of business by a government policy that disproportionately penalizes small farms,” she wrote in her letter.

In the meantime, Kellner plans to raise hogs on ground separate from the bird pastures.

The outbreak has also impacted the farm’s customers, including Moshi Moshi Sushi & Izakaya in Ballard. The restaurant uses the Monroe farm’s eggs in tamago, a sweet egg omelette sushi, and a Japanese-style deviled egg, co-owner Rumi Ohnui said. Duck eggs have a richer flavor because of the larger yolk.

Ohnui, a pastry chef, has worked with Hearth and Haven Farm since 2017. The restaurant will now have to find another duck egg supplier.

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“Right now, things look incredibly bleak,” Ohnui said in an email. “Duck eggs are usually more expensive than chicken eggs and even chicken egg prices are skyrocketing!”

The avian flu outbreak is a driving factor of high egg prices.

Poultry and eggs are a $17-million-a-year industry in Snohomish County, according to USDA data from 2017.

Last spring as the bird flu spread, local farms were on guard, aware of the potentially devastating impact. They kept their poultry away from wild birds and took other biosecurity measures. While wild birds can transmit the virus, it can also spread from farm to farm via clothes or shoes. Agriculture officials expected another rise in bird flu cases during fall migration.

The state Department of Agriculture has tips on its website to prevent avian flu.

Hearth and Haven Farm installed netting and bought a new guardian dog to chase out wild birds. But those measures wouldn’t have stopped any bird from flying and pooping over the outdoor pastures — which is how she suspects bird flu arrived at the farm.

As she rebuilds her business, Kellner remains wary of the threat of bird flu.

“The hardest part,” she said, “is that there is no guarantee that this wouldn’t simply happen again.”

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