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The effects of bird flu ripple through one Iowa county, the hardest hit in the nation

Dolores Cullen
Storm Lake Times Pilot

Colin Johnson has been around turkeys for nearly seven decades. But he went through what he called the most devastating, wasteful livestock experience of his entire life this spring.

All of his turkeys – nearly 40,000 – were killed to contain the fast-spreading bird flu.

“You put your heart and soul into something,” said Johnson, who raises turkeys in the northwest Iowa town of Albert City, “and then instantly it’s gone. You’ll never recover that work.”

Johnson had been required to test his flocks for highly pathogenic avian influenza after two flocks nearby were found positive for the virus.

Katie Peikes
Harvest Public Media

His turkeys had shown no signs of the disease. He saw no runny beaks, no sudden increase in deaths. But in late March, two tests came back positive in a flock of his that was just five or six weeks old. Per U.S. Department of Agriculture policy, that spelled doom for every turkey he owned.

The bird flu outbreak in the U.S. this year has affected more than 40 million commercial and backyard birds in 36 states, including Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri. But no other county in the U.S. has been hit as hard by bird flu this year as northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County, where nearly 5.5 million commercial chickens and turkeys have died from the disease or been killed to stop its spread.

While experts say this outbreak hasn’t been as bad as 2015, bird flu has still caused a ripple effect across this heavy agricultural county, hurting not just producers and their birds, but workers as well.

A ‘double whammy’

Johnson’s turkey farm was one of four commercial operations in Buena Vista County hit by bird flu this year. The first case surfaced in the county in early March and the other three popped up over that month.

The outbreak of bird flu across the country has, among other factors like inflation, fed into higher egg prices, which skyrocketed in April. The outbreak has also slowly been working its way into turkey prices, causing them to slightly rise.

Iowa State University agricultural economist Chad Hart says Buena Vista County is particularly vulnerable to bird flu because of its concentration of poultry.

“When you drive into town,” said Hart, referring to the county seat Storm Lake, “one of the first things you notice is that big Tyson plant.”

Tyson Foods is the county’s largest employer, and local turkey growers send their turkeys to the plant in Storm Lake to be processed. A Tyson spokesperson wouldn’t comment on how bird flu has impacted the company’s Storm Lake turkey processing plant, but on an earnings call an official said bird flu has had minimal impact on business.

There’s also Rembrandt Enterprises 15 miles north of town. It’s one of the largest egg producers in the U.S. and the county’s third largest employer. Hart said bird flu is a “double whammy” for Buena Vista County.

 Katie Peikes
Harvest Public Media
Katie Peikes

“Not only do the farmers and ranchers get hurt by the loss of the flock,” Hart said, “but the downstream workers in the processing plants get hurt as well because there’s less product to process.”

That’s what happened at Rembrandt’s egg production facility. Bird flu was found in one of its barns, the Storm Lake Times Pilot reported, and the company had to destroy the entire flock of 5.3 million egg-laying hens.

Then it laid off 135 workers.

Rembrandt Foods didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Displaced workers get community support

Things were different during the 2015 bird flu outbreak, said Oscar Garcia, a former supervisor at Rembrandt Foods who left before the disease returned last winter. Garcia, who worked at the plant as an operator when bird flu broke out seven years ago, said work slowed but didn’t halt.

Katie Peikes
Harvest Public Media

“They did have layoffs, but they provided people with jobs,” Garcia said.

Garcia soon was one of four working the night shift, which he said usually had a crew of nine.

Back then, workers who were laid off were contracted for cleaning jobs at other Rembrandt plants, Garcia said. But not this time. Instead, people were given a severance package and told to go find other work.

“It seriously gave me goosebumps,” Garcia said. “These are family, friends. Some of these households, both parents work there.”

Garcia put some of the laid-off workers in touch with a jobs center that helped them find work at Tyson Foods.

Tyson targeted advertisements at former Rembrandt Foods workers for entry-level non-skilled jobs at its Storm Lake pork processing plant, but wouldn’t comment on how many people it hired.

It’s difficult to know how many of the 135 laid-off workers are still without jobs, or what kind of an impact that’s had on the local economy. Garcia said the bigger picture impacts of bird flu to the county are hard to notice.

“But if you get down to the individual level, there are people that are really upset that I talk to,” Garcia said. “And it's just really tough seeing that.”

Katie Peikes
Harvest Public Media

The social services agency Upper Des Moines Opportunity has been helping some former workers pay their gas, electric and water bills. Outreach specialist Maggie Reyes said when the workers were laid off from Rembrandt Enterprises in early April, she knew more people would be coming to her, asking for help.

So Reyes started buying double the amount of food than she normally would for the agency’s food pantry.

“I know that families will keep coming,” Reyes said. “That’s why I just try to have it full here because how it comes and goes. The food goes very fast.”

On the mend

It’s been about three months since the four Buena Vista County commercial poultry sites were hit by bird flu, but Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig said there has been a lot of progress with getting those operations and the other 15 affected commercial farms and backyard flocks back to normal.

“We are definitely on the tail end [of the outbreak] here in the state of Iowa,” Naig said in a recent interview.

At the four sites in Buena Vista County, producers have disposed of their birds, heavily cleaned, disinfected, and the facilities have been tested for any presence of the virus. All four have been approved to restock their flocks.

Naig said the road to recovery is different for every producer, and some may restock immediately while others will wait, depending on the supply of birds. He added financial recovery could take time and producers are “a couple months away from having new revenue come in.”

Producers can file claims for indemnity payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to be compensated for the destruction of their birds, the disposal and cleanup, “but it does not make a producer whole,” Naig said.

For Colin Johnson of Albert City, any income lost wasn’t his “greatest concern,” he said, because he also raises corn and soybeans. Johnson said the hardest moment for him was euthanizing his birds.

“Like a farmer when a beautiful field of corn gets hailed out and there’s nothing left, it just hits you in the gut,” he said. “But you gotta go on.”

And Johnson is about to get back to raising turkeys, with new baby turkeys scheduled to arrive on his farm soon.

“This will be a big day,” he said. “This one will be extra special, having gone through this whole process.”

Follow Katie on Twitter: @katiepeikes 

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @harvestpm

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Katie Peikes