February 24, 2024

The Reichardt household has devoted the final 30 years to perfecting a line of geese famed for succulent pink meat and properly suited to the slower, much less demanding husbandry of a small Petaluma farm.

Now their prized poultry is being delivered, to not the Bay Space’s best Michelin-starred eating places, however to the county dump.

Avian influenza has barreled by means of Sonoma County’s historic poultry area, forcing the slaughter of 1.1 million birds and inflicting heartbreak and financial catastrophe on the Reichardts and different small household farmers within the once-famed “Egg Capital of the World.”

“We’re nonetheless within the midst of wrapping our heads round all of it,” mentioned Jennifer Reichardt, 34, a fifth-generation farmer who was required by legislation to euthanize 4,900 of their beloved “Liberty Geese” after the virus was detected Dec. 7. “There was by no means going to be a very good time for this to hit, however through the holidays it’s particularly exhausting.”

Siblings Eric and Jennifer Reichardt speak with Javier Reyes at a Sonoma County poultry farm, close to Two Rock, the place Liberty Geese are raised on Tuesday, September 20, 2022. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat) 

Not less than six neighboring farms within the Reichardt’s bucolic Liberty Valley, on the western fringe of Petaluma, are additionally bothered. They embrace Dawn Farms, a fourth-generation farm and the most important egg producer in Sonoma County, with an estimated 500,000 birds.

The domino impact on different native companies, together with feed shops and trucking, is incalculable.

“It’s disastrous, a giant chain response,” mentioned Bobby Falcon of Hunt & Behrens Feed Mill and Retailer, first opened in 1921 alongside the Petaluma River, which has misplaced an estimated 40% of its enterprise promoting 24-ton a great deal of corn and soy-based poultry feed to native farms. “What occurs to them falls to us, then the grain brokers. … It filters down about 10 or 11 instances.”

The entrance to Sunrise Farms in rural Petaluma, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, where a virulent avian flu was detected, forcing euthanasia of the poultry stock. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The doorway to Dawn Farms in rural Petaluma, Friday, Dec. 1, 2023, the place a virulent avian flu was detected, forcing euthanasia of the poultry inventory. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 

A state of emergency has been declared by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to assist mitigate the results of the catastrophe, together with help for companies. The county has additionally designated a particular waste part of its central landfill to get rid of the birds, usually killed by sealing up barns and piping in carbon dioxide. State and federal authorities present experience, though they’re stretched skinny.

Till just lately, California’s poultry farms appeared to have been spared from the disaster. Over the previous three years, a lethal and extremely contagious virus referred to as H5N1 has circled the globe, taking a staggering toll on birds in additional than 80 nations.

After rising in 2020, the virus triggered main outbreaks in Europe, Africa and Asia. It arrived within the U.S. in January 2022 and stormed by means of the nation’s largest concentrations of poultry farms within the East and Midwest, pushing up egg costs.

Health workers in protective gear enter a chicken farm during a health alert over a bird flu outbreak in Sacaba, Bolivia, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Bolivian health authorities reported on Jan. 30 that thousands of birds were culled after an outbreak of bird flu on farms, forcing the declaration of a 120-day health emergency. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
Well being employees in protecting gear enter a rooster farm throughout a well being alert over a hen flu outbreak in Sacaba, Bolivia, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Bolivian well being authorities reported on Jan. 30 that 1000’s of birds have been culled after an outbreak of hen flu on farms, forcing the declaration of a 120-day well being emergency. (AP Picture/Juan Karita) 

Skipping like a stone over water, the virus landed in Merced County in October, then Petaluma’s Liberty Valley in November.

Regardless of a swift response — biosecurity measures at farm entrances, the quick slaughter of doubtless contaminated animals, quarantining of affected farms — the illness has continued to unfold.

In solely two months, the outbreaks have claimed the lives of an estimated 4.5 million chickens, geese and turkeys in 5 California counties. Of those, over 2 million have been egg-laying hens, 1.5 million have been broiler chickens, and the remaining have been geese and turkeys, in keeping with Invoice Mattos of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation.

What’s devastating isn’t simply the grim activity of killing birds, and big monetary losses, mentioned Mattos. Farmers aren’t allowed to start out rebuilding their flocks for 120 days, to stop repeat an infection. Then these fluffy new chicks want weeks to mature. Adjoining farms are beneath strict quarantine measures, unable to maneuver or course of birds, in order that they lose helpful contracts with patrons. In the meantime, prices mount.

One-day-old ducklings run across their pen at a Sonoma County poultry farm, near Two Rock, where Liberty Ducks are raised on Tuesday, September 20, 2022. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
One-day-old ducklings run throughout their pen at a Sonoma County poultry farm, close to Two Rock, the place Liberty Geese are raised on Tuesday, September 20, 2022. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat) 

Poultry was as soon as a affluent enterprise for this area, the place the world’s first incubator was invented within the late 1800s, in keeping with Eric Stanley of the Museum of Sonoma County.

“That basically spawned the explosion of the egg trade. There have been a whole bunch and a whole bunch of farms,” he mentioned. The Petaluma River and close by railroads provided quick access to prosperous San Francisco markets.

However with the state’s highway enlargement, Sonoma County misplaced its poultry farms to the a lot bigger and cheaper Central Valley, he mentioned. Vans’ improved suspension programs may gently ship eggs all around the nation.

The area turned famed for what it’s at the moment — a monoculture of grapes.

To outlive, poultry farmers created a brand new area of interest: the Bay Space’s farm-to-table grocery shops and eating places.

“They’re sustaining our legacies and traditions,” mentioned Stanley. “They’re sustaining the heritage issues that when gave character to the whole area.”

John Reichardt got down to to boost a meatier, bigger and tastier animal. His flock of white Liberty Geese, a kind of Pekin Duck, obtained off to a modest begin in 1992 in his storage, then expanded to a barn, then a number of barns.

The geese are antibiotic and hormone-free, with recent straw for roosting and room to roam. Whereas most geese are offered at six weeks of age, Liberty Geese are reared for 9. Lean, however with a definite layer of fats beneath the tasty pores and skin, they’re prized by eating places akin to Napa’s French Laundry, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse and Kato in Los Angeles.

Specialists suspect that the animals have been contaminated by migrating wild birds, though the virus will also be unfold by contaminated farm tools, automobile tires or sneakers.

Sonoma County, with many small and scattered our bodies of water, lies alongside the Pacific Flyway, the place populations of migrating birds improve ten-fold within the winter.

“The primary reservoir of the virus are waterfowl — the geese and geese that just like the actually wealthy habitat that California provides,” mentioned veterinarian Maurice Pitesky of the UC Davis College of Veterinary Drugs, who research the unfold of avian illnesses.The federal authorities’s surveillance program has detected the virus in wild birds in 14 California counties this migratory season.