By Gaen Murphree
ORWELL—Hail, flood, drought, plagues of locusts—since ancient times farming has been one of the riskiest of human endeavors. And it still is. Just ask Orwell turkey farmer Peter Stone, who faced devastating losses just as Turkey Day approached.
An outbreak of what’s known as fowl cholera, possibly introduced into one of the eight barns at Stone’s Stonewood Farm by a determined fox or bobcat, claimed 15,000 turkeys—nearly half of Stonewood’s 2016 flock of 32,000 birds. Stonewood was able to realize only a fraction of its anticipated Thanksgiving sales, just 10,000 birds instead of 17,000.
But for consumers who hope to order a Christmas turkey direct from the farm or from the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, one important message from state food-safety experts is: “There’s no difference in that turkey and the turkey you got last year.”
State Veterinarian and Director of the Agency of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Consumer Protection Division Kristin Haas explained that every bird slaughtered at Stonewood is inspected on site by a USDA inspector, both before and after slaughter. Any live animal or carcass that can’t pass inspection is “pulled out of the slaughter channel and not allowed to go into the food supply,” Haas said.
“So in the case of Stonewood, any of the turkeys that are available now for people to purchase as part of their Thanksgiving dinners or whatever the case may be, they can have the same level of confidence in those products as they would any other time in any other situation because they’ve been subjected to a very rigorous food-safety-related inspection process.”
The cull will have an important effect on Stonewood, she said. “That’s a significant impact, with really, really crummy timing,” Haas observed. “Not that there’s any good timing for that. But, boy, that was about the worst that it could have been.”
Stone estimated that the damage could go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars—and he doesn’t have insurance against disease outbreak. “You can’t get insurance for something like this, unfortunately,” Stone said.
Fowl cholera is a bacteria that causes respiratory ailments in many avian species, and turkeys are particularly susceptible. The bacteria can be carried in mammals, with no effect on the host, but can kill a turkey within hours. The outbreak started in a Stonewood barn in which an unknown predator had successfully carried off more than one turkey, despite repairs. But both Stone and Haas say that ultimately it’s impossible to determine the cause of the outbreak.
Stonewood has been following the accepted protocol in response to this kind of outbreak, said Haas, which is to get rid of diseased birds, clean out and then disinfect the barns, and then leave them empty for a number of weeks. Stone said that one barn had already been emptied and sanitized. Sanitizing the remaining seven would likely take through January. He plans to keep the barns empty as long as possible to give sunlight and other bacteria-killing processes as long to work as possible. Stone said that he is also waiting for additional lab results from the University of Georgia to identify the exact strain of fowl cholera that got his flock.
Stonewood has about 4,000 frozen turkeys on hand for sausage making, said Stone. But for the second time only in the farm’s 29-year-history of raising turkeys it will need to raise a new flock in winter in order to keep up with winter sausage orders. Normally, Stonewood only raises new birds in the spring. So raising a winter flock will require insulating one of the barns and keeping it heated and ventilated. Young turkeys require temperatures of 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, said Stone.
Given that he suddenly found himself with 7,000 fewer Thanksgiving turkeys than anticipated, Stone said that the farm had to make some tough choices about which customers to supply.
“I had to kind of pick and choose,” he said. “We saved enough turkeys so that all the people that normally come can still come to my farm. I have turkeys for those people. There’s a few going to the Middlebury Co-op. Basically, I did stores that we’ve been doing business with ever since we started, like the Middlebury and the Brattleboro co-ops and things like that.”
MNFC Marketing Manager Karen Mott said that with the Stonewood shortage the co-op is offering both Stonewood and Misty Knoll turkeys, whereas in past years it’s carried Stonewood turkeys only. Mott added that this year the coop is offering an organic turkey as well. Asked how he’s coping with losses of this magnitude, Stone admitted that he feels sad, especially given all the months of hard work that goes into raising a turkey to bring it to market.
By Gaen Murphree