According to USDA figures, close to nine million birds died on Minnesota poultry farms during the avian flu outbreak in the spring of 2015—either of the virus or euthanization to prevent the spread of the disease. Over 48 million domestic birds died in the country overall. Now, in mid-October, as the weather turns cooler, poultry farmers in Minnesota are concerned that the disease may reappear. As of mid-October, no new incidents have been reported, and farmers have been restocking their operations, hoping to recoup their losses from last season.
PFC recently met with John Peterson, of Ferndale Market, to talk about their methods and fears as the next avian flu season gets under way. Ferndale has been a long-time turkey supplier to People’s Food Co-op. John is a third-generation turkey farmer.
His grandparents, Fern and Dale Peterson, started the farm in the Cannon Falls area in the 1930s. The Petersons were smart enough, or lucky enough, to choose land well-suited for turkeys. “It’s very sandy soil,” John notes. “It drains well, so the birds don’t wallow in mud. They aren’t as exposed to bacteria.”
Ferndale did not have any cases of bird flu last spring, though John is quick to point out that that may have been a matter of luck as much as anything else. “People think we have a magic cloak, but our animals are as likely to get sick as anyone else’s.” But he notes, geography may have been their best ally. Most of the Minnesota flu cases were spread over the counties to the west of the Twin Cities. “From St. Cloud to Wilmar you saw a lot of contamination,” John says. “But no farms in southeast Minnesota contracted the flu.”
Indeed, Minnesota’s commodity turkey farms tend to be clustered in just a few counties west of Minneapolis. This concentration of animals helps reduce feed and transport costs for the conventional farmers but probably also increases the likelihood that viruses will spread. The virus is believed to have originated in the breeding grounds of wild migratory birds, and these birds passed it along as they made their way along the Mississippi flyway.
|John Peterson and Ethan Schandelmeier of PFC.|
We pulled on plastic boots to tour the Ferndale farm. The boots are supposed to limit the contamination that visitors may bring with them. Once properly shod, we walked out into the grazing range the turkeys use as their run. John notes that virtually all of the reported outbreaks of the avian flu took place at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). “None of them have outdoor access” for their animals. John said this standing in the many-acre field that Ferndale turkeys were free to make use of.
It was a hot day, and the animals stuck to the shade, panting. They settled into shallow depressions in the sandy soil and watched us as we walked through their world. They probably found us very ugly to look at. Our heads were covered in hair and upon our feet we wore plastic.
Free ranging gangs of turkeys
Ferndale turkeys start out in a brooder barn. They like heat. The barn is kept at almost 100ºF and the poults are hand-fed and watered for the first month. They then move to the intermediate barn, where they have access to the outdoors, if they choose, while they adjust to the new temperature and learn to fend for themselves. At two to three months they move outside for good. When the snow flies, Ferndale does not have as many turkeys—after Thanksgiving they scale back. The birds they do have tend to stay inside the barns when the snow gets too deep.
The turkeys have about 20 acres to run around on at Ferndale. They tend to move in groups, which are technically known as ‘gangs.’ The demarcation of gang identity was easy to spot. There was the hanging-around-the-tree gang, and then the crib gang, and over there by the fence was a small gang that looked not very large: posers, no doubt.
Although Ferndale’s production practices exceed some requirements for organic certification, It is not a certified organic farm because it does not use organic feed. The cost of organic feed would increase the cost of the turkeys by a substantial amount. Turkey “is an economical protein,” John says. “They yield more meat for the amount of feed than a steer or a hog, making it more affordable for the average person.”
“From start to finish we use no antibiotics,” John says. “If an animal is sick we first use non-antibiotic remedies. We’ve had a lot of success with oregano, for example. Most commodity farmers use an antibiotic injection in the egg, then they use subtherapeutic antibiotics in the feed to speed the animal’s growth. A lot of the new programs allow treatments ‘preventatively.’ That’s a wide door, ‘prevention.’ I would never give my child an antibiotic ‘preventatively.’”
Ferndale uses no added water or sodium in processing the meat. “There’s a value to the customer when you’re not buying four pounds of water,” John says.
The October flu season
During a recent phone conversation, John confirmed USDA reports that there has been no reappearance of last spring’s devastating avian flu. It’s an open question though whether the commodity farm system will make any substantive changes in response to the epidemic. “Sometimes tragedy is a great tool to bring forward what’s wrong with a system,” John says, “but I don’t think [the commodity farm system] will change its practices. They’ll just put a tighter lock on the barn door.”
What’s next for Ferndale Market? “We’re not trying to grow bigger. We’re trying to be sustainable. We try new things: Our smoked turkey breasts came out about a year ago; that’s going well. It’s hard being a medium-sized farm—the big operations just get bigger. If we’d gone the commodity route back twenty years ago or so, we’d be run by the corporation now—following their strict protocols. We saw an opportunity to preserve the practices our family was already doing, and that’s what we decided to do.”