By Ryan Raicht
Kari Sponaugle and her husband are taking several precautions on their Highland County farm to protect their chickens and turkeys from a new strain of avian influenza.
“We pretty much have to keep a ‘closed door’ type of situation on the farm to keep everything healthy,” she said. “We have to make sure that people who are coming are approved to be on the farm, and they’re following biosecurity protocols just like we are.”
The new strain is threatening egg and produce businesses across the nation—and in Rockbridge County—at a time when farmers are struggling with shortages of workers.
Sponaugle, who is also an agriculture and natural resources extension agent at Virginia Tech University, owns and operates a 50-acre vegetable farm called Church Hill Produce. She also raises cattle.
Experts had expected the avian flu to disappear last summer because it is usually killed off by warm temperatures. But the new strain has stuck around, causing a shortage in chickens nationwide.
The disease is transmitted through Canada geese and mallard droppings, which can infect free-range chickens if it’s brought into poultry houses by people or birds.
The states affected the most by the Avian flu pandemic are in the northern Midwest, which is along the migratory path of geese and mallards. But the disease has made its way to Virginia, which has seen 500 confirmed cases in the last year, according to an article in last month’s Richmond Time-Dispatch.
“To control the disease, you have to kill the flock,” says Tom Stanley, a farm business management extension agent at Virginia Tech.
Once one bird in a flock is infected, the entire colony must be euthanized. It can take several months for a farmer to get a flock back to full capacity. That’s not only stressful for the farmers, but it also results in lost production time, which jeopardizes revenue.
As a result of the avian flu, the price of eggs has skyrocketed.
Since last November, the average cost of eggs from wholesale distributors has gone up 49.1%, which represents the largest year-over-year increase ever, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
In Rockbridge County, the price increase has not been limited to just eggs. Various produce items, such as tomatoes, peppers and broccoli, have seen sharp increases in prices recently that can be traced to challenges in local production.
“The biggest challenge is labor,” Stanley said. “These fresh vegetables you find at the local farmers market are extremely labor intensive.”
Sponaugle said the lack of workers makes it difficult to produce large amounts of produce, which can drive up the prices.
“We were having a really hard time sourcing local, reliable labor,” she said. “Vegetables don’t wait. When they’re mature, they need to get off the vine and to the store. We needed to have an efficient work force that was ready and able when we were ready to pick.”
Sponaugle hired a crew of seasonal workers from Mexico last summer through the federal H-2A program.
The program requires that workers put in between 11 and 14 hours of work per day, which is challenging for local farms to provide in a region where growing produce in general is difficult because of the climate.
“The big difference in the East, is that the humidity presents all kinds of challenges,” Stanley said. “It can cause bacteria growth and brown discolorations on the produce, which the American consumer won’t accept.”