Fourth Sonoma County poultry flock hit by bird flu with latest case making for California’s largest single outbreak this season

The newly affected flock of 270,000 laying hens near Petaluma is the largest hit so far in California, where more than 1 million commercially raised birds have been euthanized, about half of them in Sonoma County.|

A Petaluma-area egg farm is the latest hot-spot in the rampant state- and nationwide spread of a deadly stain of bird flu, resulting in more than a half million commercially raised hens and ducks in Sonoma County being euthanized in the past several weeks.

The latest case was detected Dec. 7 at unidentified egg producer in southern Sonoma County, where 270,000 laying hens had to be put down — the largest loss of farm-raised birds so far this season in California due to avian flu.

It was the fourth commercial flock in Sonoma County to be hit by the highly contagious virus since last month.

A much smaller but impactful outbreak was detected last week among 4,900 birds at Liberty Ducks, purveyor of premium duck to high-end restaurants around the Bay Area and beyond.

Altogether, more than 1 million commercially raised chickens, ducks and turkeys in five California counties have been euthanized in less than two months as a consequence of the virus, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sonoma County birds account for more than half of that toll.

Wild birds infected with bird flu have been found in 14 California counties this fall.

The two most recent commercial sites in Sonoma County to grapple with the virus are within the quarantine zone surrounding Reichardt Duck Farm and a Sunrise Farm egg production facility that reported infections in late November, according to Mike Weber, a partner in Sunrise Farms and co-owner, with his brother, of Weber Family Farms. Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith confirmed the fact.

The area is often known as the region’s “egg basket,” given the historic and ongoing presence of egg and poultry farms in the area. Weber last month said up to 1 million farm-raised birds were on properties within a five-mile radius of his affected site, compounding the concern for poultry producers and spurring even stricter protocols in recent weeks

Jennifer Reichardt, chief operating officer of Liberty Ducks, told The Press Democrat the virus was detected at one her company’s farm sites Dec. 6 as a result of twice-weekly testing required of operations in a 6.2-mile zone around the original outbreak established by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to reduce potential for contagion. Movement of poultry, eggs and other poultry products from inside the area is restricted, as well.

For Liberty Ducks, a boutique purveyor to high-end Bay Area restaurants, the crisis is unfolding after years of depressed sales during the COVID pandemic and amid new restrictions during what is typically their busiest season, leaving them facing “an uncertain economic future,” Jennifer Reichardt said in a fundraising appeal this week.

“People need to understand that we’re dealing with an invisible wildfire, and you can’t see it raging, but it’s been raging in our county,” Weber said.

Reichardt Duck Farm — a separate producer run by relatives of the Liberty Ducks owners — lost 170,000 birds when High Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI, struck at its Two Rock operation Nov. 22.

Sunrise Farms detected the virus five days later at a site off Bodega Avenue and had to euthanize 82,500 laying hens.

Weber said none of the other Sunrise Farms or Weber farm sites have been affected, so far, including three that are also within the quarantine zone.

But he said it will be six months or more before the affected Sunrise Farms site will be ready for chickens again, and said the toll and exhaustion of the situation are significant and rife with uncertainty about whether more farms will break positive.

Sonoma County supervisors declared a local emergency due to the virus last week, hoping it might eventually lead to assistance for some of those affected.

“If the wind changes direction, it could take viral load and just invisibly cover a flock. It could hit a backyard flock,” Weber said.

State and federal sites tracking avian flu in commercial flocks specify only the involved county and number of birds affected, not the operator.

Local agricultural leaders have declined to identify the most recent egg production farm affected in deference to its owners, who reportedly hope to avoid having animal welfare activists assemble there and use drones to videotape the carnage, one poultry operator said.

“They’re just solely focused on keeping their business going,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Some in the agricultural community have speculated the virus was first introduced in Sonoma County as a result of incursions onto farm properties by members of Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, an animal welfare group whose members infiltrated Reichardt Duck Farm, the first commercial operation affected. One of the reported incursions last month was within the incubation period for the disease, ag representatives have said.

DxE representatives have rejected any suggestion their members were to blame for the flu outbreaks.

Bird flu, specifically a virulent form called High Pathogenic Avian Influenza, is typically spread by migrating birds, especially water fowl, which can shed virus even without showing symptoms. It is transmitted in feces and in saliva droplets, and can become airborne.

The latest outbreak tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture started in the Carolinas last year and has affected 47 states so far.

At least 72.5 million domestic birds in commercial and backyard flocks have been affected, according to the USDA.

They include nine commercial flocks in California since late October in Sonoma, Stanislaus, San Benito, Merced and Fresno counties.

Sonoma County, where eggs and poultry are a nearly $50 million industry, account for four of them.

Infected birds must be euthanized to prevent the virus from spreading. Though their remains are often composted on site, Sunrise Farms had to haul theirs to the county’s main landfill off Mecham Road for handling and disposal as “special waste” after state and federal officials decided a nearby water course and high water table made on-site disposal too risky.

Weber said the 270,000 birds more recently infected are being disposed of in the same way.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On X/Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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