Others’ Opinon: More help needed for bird flu losses

Published 9:42 am Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The St. Cloud Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency

When it comes to Central Minnesota’s agriculture, this spring will long be remembered as one of the most horrific. What started in early March as a few cases of avian influenza at turkey farms in Kandiyohi and Stearns counties spread quickly. Incredibly quickly.

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As of Friday, 84 farms in 21 counties were quarantined due to the aggressive H5N2 virus, which had affected at least 5.59 million birds. Nationwide, since December federal officials have tallied 122 cases of the disease impacting 24 million chickens and turkeys in 14 states — the worst outbreak in U.S. history.

Economic impacts have yet to be fully calculated, but it’s clear federal and state governments must provide the resources needed to make sure impacted farmers survive until the outbreak subsides or a vaccination can be developed.

Kudos to the Minnesota Legislature for advancing measures that include low-interest loans to farmers; improved biosecurity at the farms; and more funds to the half-dozen state agencies working to fight the outbreak.

Those agencies include the state Agriculture and Health Departments, the Department of Natural Resources, the Board of Animal Health, and a couple emergency control centers. At least 210 state and federal employees are working directly on the outbreak, not to mention staff from many of the involved counties.

While those steps are helpful, it’s clear the federal government should do more. That can start with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack granting the request of 13 senators — including Minnesota’s Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar — to bolster funding for its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s avian health program, which is a key entity in battling the flu.

Another idea Congress should consider is broadening its reimbursement policy. Now, it covers only euthanized birds, not those that died of virus before it was officially identified. Given how fast the disease is spreading, that could take a big toll on farmers’ wallets.

Honestly, though, the impacts of this outbreak go far beyond farmers. Just last week more than 200 workers at a turkey-processing facility in Willmar were laid off because production had to be cut.

Perhaps worst of all, while the outbreak will likely subside with hot, dry weather, experts project another wave of it when the weather cools and migratory waterfowl — the likely carriers — fly south through Minnesota for the winter. Stay tuned.

Community representative Lexann Reischl abstained from this Our View due to a potential conflict of interest.