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When Jim Stauffer of Petaluma saw a chicken crawling out of a mound of compost like the living dead, he knew something had changed at the egg farm next door.

"We called them zombie chickens," Stauffer said. "Some of them crawled right up out of the ground. They'd get out and stagger around."

What changed was the method used to get rid of "spent hens," which are chickens that no longer produce eggs. And the change isn't just in Petaluma; it's throughout the country.

The market for spent-hen meat has collapsed. Since May, there isn't a California facility willing to take them.

That means finding a way to dispose of more than a half-million spent hens a year - and that's just in the Sonoma County area, mostly around Petaluma, where chickens and eggs have been an agricultural staple for a century.

As a last resort, many farmers have turned to killing the chickens and using them to make piles of compost.

Hens are placed in a sealed box which is filled with carbon monoxide. Within seconds the chickens are unconscious. Less than two minutes later, they die from lack of oxygen.

Farmers say the method for euthanizing and composting the chickens is humane and health officials say they have heard no complaints.

The dead chickens are layered into a mound of sawdust. In about a month, it turns into compost, farmers said.

They said the incident described by Stauffer, in which about two dozen chickens crawled out of compost piles, was an anomaly probably caused by inexperience.

One farmer said no chickens survive the process, which he personally oversees. The biggest chicken farmer in the region said usually two survive out of 40,000 gassed.

"There's not a lot of difference between euthanizing them on the ranch or hauling them to the slaughterhouse," said Arnie Reibli of Petaluma, who sells more eggs than anyone in Northern California.

Robin and Skip White, who live near the same chicken ranch as Stauffer, said they've had a half-dozen chickens escape from the ranch when it changes its stock and join their flock over the past seven years.

They didn't know about the new composting method, but their latest arrival, which they've named Survivor, showed up around the same time as the first composting operation.

The all-white chicken "looked like it had been pulled through a knothole" because it had worn its feathers off moving around in the cage where it was kept while it produced eggs, Robin White said.

Farmers say they once made a profit selling their spent hens, but as consumer habits changed, processing plants stopped taking the hens, preferring meatier broiler chickens instead.

Four decades ago, people regularly used spent hens to cook homemade soup, stewing them on the stovetop for hours. Two decades ago, they still were stewed by companies for soup or to be sold as canned chicken.

"People's eating habits have changed," Reibli said. "A chicken in every pot - that was Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Those were stewing hens. But people don't cook like that any more."

Egg farmers and industry representatives said it seems wasteful that the chickens can't be used for food.

"I think it's a damn shame there's no food value," said one egg farmer, who insisted on anonymity, saying his company was vandalized four years ago by animal rights activists.

Reibli said he'd give them away for food but it would cost about $175,000 annually to have his half-million spent chickens processed at a slaughterhouse.

"The problem is there is no value anymore to spent fowl," Reibli said. "If somebody wanted to buy them, I'd sell them."

Giving hens away isn't a solution, farmers say, both because of the numbers involved and because of scares and biosecurity regulations prompted by the spread of avian flu and exotic Newcastle disease that keep people off the farms. The diseases also cut the demand for spent hen meat, Reibli said.

Compost made from the chickens is used as fertilizer or sold to farmers, but that doesn't cover the expense of producing it, farmers said.

In Sonoma County alone, there were 882,000 hens in 2005, part of a $9.1 million poultry industry category in the annual crop report that includes chicken eggs, hatching eggs for ducks and turkeys, byproducts and goat milk.

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said he hasn't received any complaints about the composting operations.

A tour of one chicken ranch by a group of teachers left them feeling the birds had some useful purpose in death.

"You have to do something with these dead birds," McCorvey said. "I think the feeling was they are being recycled in a sense, and I think people were OK with that."

Stauffer said the mounds of compost definitely send a new smell wafting through the agricultural valley west of Petaluma. He said the carcasses occasionally attract a neighborhood dog and some vultures.

"It doesn't smell any worse than the chicken poop or any worse than the cows when they spread the manure, but it does smell bad," he said. "It smells like something's dead and the vultures certainly know it."

Farmers said there are no hazards posed by the compost piles, which are not regulated by the county or state.

Carol Cardona, a state veterinarian and associate professor at UC Davis, said there is a greater risk of chickens infecting other chickens than humans.

"You're more likely to get sick from what another person is carrying than what a chicken is carrying," she said.

She said composting studies show the process quickly destroys bacteria. Within a day, there was no trace of avian flu in compost because the piles heat up with bacterial activity, digesting any pathogens.

The Sonoma County public health office and agricultural commissioner were unaware of the composting operations and said they had not received any complaints.

Lisa Correia, the county's agricultural commissioner, said the only permit necessary would be if the ranches compost more than 1,000 cubic yards at a time. Regulations also may kick in if composting threatens to contaminate streams, she said.

Stauffer said he's not complaining; he understands farmers have to do something with the chickens. But he wonders if the piles might pose health risks for the nearby penned chickens, creeks or neighbors.

"It is a fact of life, chickens do their job and go away," Stauffer said. "They don't read the paper and vote."

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