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Amid bird flu, Farmers prepare for a tough poultry season

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to go back to something that's been on a lot of our minds lately - the big price increases for certain items at the grocery store. Now, there are a lot of different reasons for the increases. Russia's attack on Ukraine is one. But when it comes to eggs and chicken, the main culprit is something else. It's an outbreak of avian flu, also known as bird flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 59 million domesticated fowl, mainly chickens and turkeys, have been affected just in the U.S. And it's not just hard on consumers. It's hard on poultry farmers.

JOHN BRUNNQUELL: We've really begun to stop thinking about it as an outbreak but more as a new reality.

MARTIN: That's John Brunnquell. He's the CEO of Egg Innovations, which produces free-range eggs - about a million a day. He says he was drawn to this work in college, when he first learned about free-range farming.

BRUNNQUELL: I walked into my first cage-free barn in the early '90s, and it kind of shattered everything I thought I knew about commercial egg production. I was trained that cages were good. And I just couldn't wrap my head around watching that chicken walk around in a cage-free barn and saying, this is bad. And so that began a journey of learning for me on, you know, what is welfare.

MARTIN: Caring for his chickens is a big part of the job, and Brunnquell says this outbreak has been devastating.

BRUNNQUELL: The people who find that they have it, many times, they closed the barn the night before and everything looked good. And they opened the doors the next day, and, you know, they see a large number of birds that are dead. So it affects the birds very, very rapidly and to a large population of that - you know, that flock. And so it's a very deadly virus that we're dealing with, and, you know, we don't, at this point, really have a solution as an industry.

MARTIN: As a result, Brunnquell says this outbreak has affected how poultry farmers do their work.

BRUNNQUELL: Certainly, there's a cost. We've all elevated our game from biosecurity, whether that's truck washes or limiting traffic, how we communicate with our farms and, you know, limiting people who are not essential from being on the farm. It's eliminated a lot of normal industry movement, you know, whether it's sales people or even colleagues wanting to visit each other's farm. That has all essentially disappeared.

MARTIN: It's not just affecting how business is done now. It's also having knock-on effects.

BRUNNQUELL: So what happens when you have a catastrophic disease, you know, like avian influenza, where we lost 50 million birds, it puts an immense toll on the whole supply chain. And so there's many examples where a complex that might have eight or 10 buildings on a farm, some of those barns, it may take them up to six to nine months before they can even get baby chicks to refill those barns.

MARTIN: Supplying those chicks and raising them to maturity takes time. Brunnquell says that means the decreased supply of chickens is likely to linger.

BRUNNQUELL: And that's assuming we have no additional significant outbreaks here in 2023. And if we do, that just resets that number lower again. So we're going to be living in a world of elevated cost, simply because of supply and demand, for a while.

MARTIN: And when people ask him if there's an end in sight, Brunnquell says it's complicated.

BRUNNQUELL: There really isn't a clean, simple answer that anyone can say with certainty to say this will be over in May of this year or August of this year. We simply don't know. And where the anxiety lies is we're about to enter the spring migratory season. We simply have to keep our guard up as high as we can and, you know, and cross our fingers and pray a little bit and say, we hope we don't get infected.

MARTIN: That's Egg Innovation CEO John Brunnquell talking about how the current bird flu outbreak is affecting his industry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.