Sebastian Marcelino, left, and Amador Cruz load dirt from an organic cage-free chicken house onto a tractor at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County poultry farmers euthanize thousands more birds as avian flu losses devastate local industry

Mike Weber hadn’t intended to work Christmas Day. But there he was, driving out to Weber Family Farms, the Petaluma chicken ranch he co-owns. His wife came along, too. They hadn’t been spending much quality time together.

At the farm off Rainsville Road, Weber, a fourth-generation poultry farmer, was surprised to find more than 30 of his employees. He had told them to stay home with their families for Christmas. They insisted there was too much work to be done. Weber hugged each one of them. Then they went to work killing the chickens that kept them all in business.

“They were picking up the bodies of animals they had caretaken for so long,” said Weber, 56.

Leonisio Corrado, left, Amador Cruz, Sebastian Marcelino, and Daniel Herrerra remove dirt from an organic cage-free chicken house at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. The farm had to destroy 550,000 chickens and 3.2 million eggs after an avian flu outbreak. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Leonisio Corrado, left, Amador Cruz, Sebastian Marcelino, and Daniel Herrerra remove dirt from an organic cage-free chicken house at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. The farm had to destroy 550,000 chickens and 3.2 million eggs after an avian flu outbreak. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma County’s poultry industry, concentrated largely in the rolling meadowland west of Petaluma, has survived price fluctuations, urban encroachment, evolving consumer preferences and climate change for more than 125 years.

But the industry likely has never stared down a moment quite as dire as this. Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (or HPAI), a virus strain that has wreaked havoc on egg laying, broiler chicken and turkey farms and backyard flocks all over the world, has found a foothold in Sonoma County. At least 10 sites across the county have recorded detections since Thanksgiving week.

During that span, about 1 million chickens have been sentenced to death here — a number that represents nearly 40% of the entire commercial chicken inventory listed in Sonoma County’s 2022 crop report.

“For the first time in 112 years, our family has no chickens,” Weber said.

Mike Weber is co-owner of Weber Family Farms, which was devastated by an avian flu outbreak. The ranch had to destroy 550,000 chickens and 3.2 million eggs because of the avian flu. Photo taken in Petaluma on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Mike Weber is co-owner of Weber Family Farms, which was devastated by an avian flu outbreak. The ranch had to destroy 550,000 chickens and 3.2 million eggs because of the avian flu. Photo taken in Petaluma on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

On top of that, 214,000 turkeys were euthanized in the past two months, also in response to positive HPAI tests.

Affected farmers are feverishly attempting to disinfect their facilities while simultaneously tabulating losses, creating work for employees, exploring forms of government aid and finding alternative sources of revenue. Those who haven’t been hit by the virus yet are praying they’ll be spared.

“We’re just so tired of killing. We don’t want to kill these brand-new beautiful birds.” Mike Weber

And on the horizon is another potential threat — a ballot initiative drive that seeks to end factory farming in Sonoma County, defining the term in a way that would include most of the recognizable names in local poultry.

“I say devastating, and that doesn’t even come close,” is how Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, described this moment. “You think of the enormity of it all, and it takes your breath away.”

Like watching a wildfire

To those who draw their livelihood from chickens and ducks, the series of local outbreaks is a tragedy. But it isn’t a complete surprise. HPAI is mostly transmitted by wild waterfowl, and its spread in North America is concentrated along the major north-south flyways.

The current panzootic (the animal equivalent of a pandemic) erupted in the U.S. in February 2022 and is already the most lethal in American history with more than 81 million dead birds. It has struck the Pacific Flyway in a major way, and Sonoma County’s inland marshes and fields are directly under that migration route.

As wetlands have disappeared across California, wild birds are clustering more densely and congregating closer to commercial poultry — a terrible formula for farm birds and their stewards.

Scott Weber, co-owner of Weber Family Farms loads some of the 3.2 million eggs that need to be destroyed into a truck in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Scott Weber, co-owner of Weber Family Farms loads some of the 3.2 million eggs that need to be destroyed into a truck in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

HPAI can be transmitted through airborne droplets. That’s a problem at chicken houses, which typically have ventilation systems that pull in fresh air. As Weber noted, the first chickens to turn up dead at Weber Family Farms were directly under a vent.

The farms here began to fall like dominoes. From Reichardt Duck, located in the Two Rock area, on Nov. 22, to Sunrise Farms off Bodega Avenue (Weber co-owns that one, too) five days later. Then another Sonoma County facility, which sources identified as a Petaluma Egg Farm site. Then a different Petaluma Egg Farm property and a Perdue Farms broiler ranch.

“I think I have cried no less than 5 times today.” Jennifer Reichardt

“This is Perdue’s first and only farm to be affected,” spokeswoman Andrea Staub wrote to The Press Democrat. “We depopulated the farm of 77,000 broiler chickens to minimize the risk of the disease spreading to other flocks.”

The path seemed to be following prevailing wind patterns, Weber said. He likened it to “watching a wildfire cross the lines. It was just brace, brace, brace.”

Weber Family Farms finally got nailed, too, and others after that. A few of the 10 affected facilities have yet to be publicly identified.

Workers remove all dirt from organic cage-free chicken houses at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. Avian flu resulted in the loss of 550,000 chickens at the facility, with 3.2 million eggs having to be destroyed. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Workers remove all dirt from organic cage-free chicken houses at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. Avian flu resulted in the loss of 550,000 chickens at the facility, with 3.2 million eggs having to be destroyed. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

“Up until (four) weeks ago, it was business as usual,” Weber said. “We were receiving day-old chicks, vaccinating, getting ready to move birds into production houses. We had a large flock that was supposed go to Weber Family Farms. That whole facility is now quarantined. You can’t tell the birds to stop maturing.”

As he spoke to a reporter, Weber sat astride the roof of an old chicken house, on a property his family had previously decommissioned because it was inconveniently distant from its other operations. He was in the process of re-roofing the building to house chicks for Weber Family Farms.

“We’re just so tired of killing,” Weber said. “We don’t want to kill these brand-new beautiful birds.”

Even after putting the new roof on, Weber would have to move machinery on site, rush parts orders and secure animal welfare certifications — a process likely to cost “a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

At the same time, the farm must destroy 3 million eggs that were ready for processing. That leaves the company unable to fulfill existing contracts with supermarkets.

“When you tell somebody you’ll provide them with product, and your chickens are going away, you still have to fulfill that order,” Weber said. “We’re going on the open market and buying eggs. We’re taking a loss. Every part of it is brutal.”

A conventional chicken house that normally houses 100,000 egg producing chickens remains empty and dormant at Weber Family Farms in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
A conventional chicken house that normally houses 100,000 egg producing chickens remains empty and dormant at Weber Family Farms in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

No insurance, little aid

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau is in the process of calculating how much money it will take for local poultry facilities “to get back to production,” said Ghirardelli, the executive director. A little further down the road, Sonoma County staff will conduct a more substantive “loss assessment survey,” according to Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith. The county has done similar assessments for droughts, floods and the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of now, the financial losses incurred so far are yet to be tabulated.

But they will be massive. Weber estimates his farms will lose $20 million in revenue this year, and will take two years to return to a new normal if all goes well.

When one dead chicken tests positive for HPAI, that farm must destroy every bird and quarantine the site for four months. It can take several months longer for chicks to mature, and for the money from sales to roll in.

“Every part of it is brutal.” Mike Weber

Poultry operations are not insured for their chickens and ducks, either, a gap that Smith finds frustrating.

“If we can get pet insurance, then we should be able to get livestock insurance,” he said.

The federal government does offer poultry farmers indemnity toward cleanup, using a complicated formula. That money will help, Weber said, but won’t cover the full cost of disinfecting barns and equipment and disposing of dead birds. And the smallest producers, the pasture flocks that sell to farmer’s markets and restaurants, might not be eligible, according to Richard Blatchford, an associate professor in UC Davis’ Center for Animal Welfare.

Dirt from organic cage-free chicken houses is loaded into a truck at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Dirt from organic cage-free chicken houses is loaded into a truck at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

On Dec. 5, after the first two positive tests in the county were announced, the Board of Supervisors passed an emergency resolution, which brings the county’s Department of Emergency Management into the equation.

“It also sets us up to go to state level,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes the Petaluma area. “I contacted every other county that had outbreaks, and encouraged them to do the same.”

After speaking to Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Rabbitt said the likelihood of Sacramento declaring a state of emergency “is probably small, to be honest.”

A champion of agriculture, the supervisor acknowledged there also may be little the county can do to compensate besieged poultry farmers.

The lack of support, in the face of grave economic challenge, could prove to be an insurmountable hurdle for some producers.

“If you’re talking about the poultry industry as a whole, it is rather resilient to these types of outbreaks,” Blatchford said. “It might take time, but they can get back. The question is, if you’re talking about individual organizations — and especially smaller ones — do they have the capacity to come back? Do they have the stocks to get through that lag period? And I would guess the really small ones don’t.”

‘I feel I failed them’

Beyond the chicken houses lies a wide-ranging web of interconnected businesses that rely, in part, on Sonoma County’s poultry farms. The Reichardts’ feathers are used to make down pillows. Feed stores supply the farms on the front end of the food cycle, fertilizer companies and organic produce farms pay on the back end.

“We’re feeding what people eat,” said Bob Falco, co-owner of Hunt & Behrens, a feed mill that has operated in Petaluma for 102 years. “Eggs. Meat. We’re just a step away from the farms.”

Close to 40% of Hunt & Behrens’ grain goes to poultry operations, Falco said. They typically have four to six trucks going to Petaluma-area Reichardt Duck Farm and Liberty Ducks every day. Those trucks are idle now.

Hunt & Behrens has weathered the recessions of the early 1990s and the late 2000s, and the COVID pandemic, too. This feels different to Falco.

“We’re definitely very concerned,” he said. “It’s hard to pencil all this out. We’re just hoping our producers can get back on their feet in five or six months. And that goes for the Webers, the Mahrts — the ones we don’t sell to. Everybody.”

The ripples extend to the livestock waste business — chiefly, fertilizer derived from poultry farms. Many who rely on that supply from Sonoma County are now going without.

“We supply the biggest organic rice grower in the country, the biggest organic vineyard in the country,” said Mike Weber, speaking for Weber Family Farms. “Whether you’re eating rice, quinoa, nuts, stone fruit, citrus, vegetables … In Sonoma County, we supply a guy who grows hops, another guy who’s in cannabis. It’s kind of everything you eat that’s organic.”

Retailers and consumers also stand to lose. That happened a year ago, during the last winter surge of HPAI, when egg prices shot to $4.82 per dozen nationwide, compared to $1.93 in January 2022.

Some of the 3.2 million eggs that need to be destroyed due to an avian flu outbreak at Weber Family Farms in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. The farm also had to destroy 550,000 chickens due to the avian flu. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Some of the 3.2 million eggs that need to be destroyed due to an avian flu outbreak at Weber Family Farms in Petaluma, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. The farm also had to destroy 550,000 chickens due to the avian flu. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Regionally, it might be happening again.

“I went in a supermarket and saw a sign that said, ‘No eggs, bird flu,’” Weber observed. “I feel like I failed them.”

Bi-Rite Market is one outlet feeling the pinch. The popular, high-end grocery store, with three retail locations in San Francisco, normally gets orders for 50-75 Liberty-brand ducks during the holiday season. This year they had to scramble for secondary suppliers. Liberty Ducks, owned by other members of the Reichardt family and situated near Petaluma, was killing its birds following an HPAI detection in early December.

“They have been our duck producer — the one you’re going to find at Bi-Rite — for about 15 years,” said Jamie Nessel, the grocery store’s director of product and purchasing. “We wanted to work with Jim Reichardt and Liberty Ducks because they tick off all the boxes of the mission we have in the world. Direct sourcing from local partners. And just having the best eating experience. We think these ducks are kind of the best there is.”

The instability within the local poultry industry, including egg farmers, “definitely keeps us as a grocer up at night,” Nessel said.

“This represents a significant challenge to a specific agricultural industry, the likes of which we haven’t seen. At least in my lifetime.” Agricultural Commissioner Andrew Smith

As the avian contagion spreads, the industry circles the wagons. Jim Reichardt declined an interview request. The Marht family, which owns Petaluma Egg Farm, did not respond to multiple messages.

But inside the circle, there is a newfound spirit of cooperation.

Weber Family Farms volunteered to raise chicks for Petaluma Egg Farm at the recommissioned chicken house, Mike Weber said. He also spoke to Perdue Farms’ local head of production about approaching future calamities as a bloc, rather than a bunch of producers scrambling in different directions.

“If anyone gets hit, be it a meat farm or an egg layer, everyone is going to take 20% of their employees and send them to that place, to do anything we can to stop the wildfire,” Weber said.

The producers are finding community support, too. The Reichardt family started a GoFundMe account a month ago. By Thursday, it had collected more than $185,000.

“I think I have cried no less than 5 times today,” Jennifer Reichardt wrote in a message on the GoFundMe page. “ … In this difficult time, it is incredibly heartwarming to not feel so alone.”

Troubled path forward

Sonoma County has experienced its share of agricultural disasters. The phylloxera root louse, the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the European grapevine moth, potato blight, Esca fungi, Brucellosis bacteria — all have left their mark on North Bay crops and livestock, along with climate change and unpredictable market forces.

But there’s something about the current vulnerability of the local poultry industry that is especially poignant.

Petaluma was practically built on chickens and eggs. The city’s Pioneer Hatchery was the first commercial hatchery in the United States. The chick incubator was invented here, too. By the end of World War II, the county was producing 612 million eggs a year and was celebrated as “Egg Capital of the World.”

Some of the abandoned chicken houses from that era still dot the Sonoma County landscape.

“I feel honored to be part of the few people who are carrying out the tradition, something that made us great,” Weber said.

Workers remove all dirt from organic cage-free chicken houses at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. Avian flu resulted in the loss of 550,000 chickens at the facility, with 3.2 million eggs having to be destroyed. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)
Workers remove all dirt from organic cage-free chicken houses at a Weber Family Farms facility in Petaluma on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. Avian flu resulted in the loss of 550,000 chickens at the facility, with 3.2 million eggs having to be destroyed. (Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat)

Rabbitt, the county supervisor, has internalized that story, too.

“Having been in Petaluma for 35 years, my kids have grown up with farm families,” he said. “I understand the struggle to remain viable against those true factory farms in the Midwest or Central Valley.”

Those more industrial operations have ascended over decades, borne by factors like government subsidies, land values, automation and labor costs, all of which favor scale.

Sonoma County’s poultry farms have survived, thanks to their ability to adapt to changing tastes. A variety of brown egg produced by Petaluma Egg Farm was the first Certified Organic egg in California. Smith, the agricultural commissioner, said some of the first organic livestock operations in the world were Sonoma County broiler processors.

But this Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu is a different sort of threat, arriving in a different sort of climate, with at least some portion of the population questioning the farms’ practices. People like Smith, who grew up in Santa Rosa, are hoping our local poultry producers have one more counterpunch left.

“This represents a significant challenge to a specific agricultural industry, the likes of which we haven’t seen,” he said. “At least in my lifetime.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On X (Twitter) @Skinny_Post.