Biohazard lockdowns. Food rationing. Economic chaos. No, not plot lines from the latest TV zombie apocalypse. They’re the real life consequences of bird flu.
Last spring, highly pathogenic Avian Influenza swept through 15 states killing 49 million birds, mostly egg-laying chickens. Farmers sprang into emergency mode to contain the outbreak. Some grocers limited egg sales. The economy took a $3.3 billion hit. You and I saw table egg prices go from $1.84 to $2.48 a dozen in about a month. The price on breakers — the one-third of our eggs that go into processed foods — jumped 273 percent.
The reaction to all this was a bit surprising, which is to say, there was none. In the midst of what was called the worst animal disease outbreak in U.S. history, mainstream media was strangely quiet. Online communities seemed largely unaware. No one stopped me after church to ask what’s going on. Which made me wonder, what’s going on?
My guess is there were several factors at play. First, this wasn’t a human health issue; people can’t catch this strain of the disease. Second, we’re fortunate enough that a buck or two at the grocery isn’t too big of a deal. And, perhaps most importantly, even in the face of a massive disaster, American farmers maintained their amazing capacity to feed us.
Catastrophe on the farm is not uncommon, nor is the fact that as consumers we’re generally oblivious. In addition to bird flu, over the past few years we’ve experienced droughts in the Plains cattle country and in California’s produce belt, a pig killing virus across the Midwest and crop-ruining rains right here in Ohio. But we’ve never experienced an empty grocery.
While you and I are mostly immune, these far-too-frequent farm disasters are not without consequences. Of course, farm families feel things the worst, both economically and emotionally. When Mother Nature wipes out a flock or herd or crop, years if not decades of equity can disappear and the strain on families and their communities is severe. Because they’re smart and strong willed, most bounce back. Some don’t.
At times there are lesser but still unfortunate consequences. The flu eliminated this year’s poultry show season for more than 9,000 Ohio youngsters who were planning or preparing their projects for the fair. The Ohio Department of Agriculture correctly made the tough decision to cancel exhibitions to protect against the contagious disease. My thanks to the fair boards, educators, parents, advisers and businesses that found creative alternatives that preserved the learning experience and rewarded the work even though the shows could not be held.
As for Ohio’s $2.3 billion poultry industry, our commercial growers and small flock owners got lucky. Our 51 million birds dodged the flu, but because it’s carried by migratory birds and thrives in cooler temperatures, the risk returns this fall. Fifteen thousand Ohioans who work across the poultry industry are on high alert, ramping up biosecurity measures and fast-tracking research into preventive steps and potential cures. And planning for worst case scenarios.
As consumers, we can help. Simply continue to enjoy the healthful, nutritious and still affordable eggs, chicken and turkey raised by Ohio and American farmers. And perhaps appreciate that events like bird flu, while calamitous, are also testaments to agriculture’s resilience.
John C. (Jack) Fisher is Ohio Farm Bureau executive vice president.