Our small-scale, diversified farm has a flock of hens that provides us and our customers with quality eggs throughout the year. The birds have access to plenty of pasture when they want it, and a roomy shelter to protect them from inclement weather and predators at night. They also support the cycle of life on the farm by allowing us to use their manure as fertilizer for vegetable and fruit production.
Our hens are provided an opportunity for healthy lives, with the chance to be as happy as poultry can be. But they are still poultry, which makes them susceptible to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), just like any other bird.
HPAI is carried in bird populations and spreads like any other virus. Infection is more likely where birds congregate and, as birds migrate northward, movement of the population can bring incidence of the disease to new locations. As of mid-May, there have been confirmed wild bird deaths from this disease in 38 states.
The migratory period is a time when stationary flocks, such as our hens (who do not go South despite occasional requests to do so), can risk exposure to the bird flu. Some years, the virus does not spread readily. This year,the H5N1 virus (the current strain of avian flu) is highly contagious and most likely fatal for poultry should they contract it.
The 2022 outbreak has not quite reached the levels of the 2015 outbreak, when over 30 million poultry perished in the state of Iowa alone. However, the May 18 data from the USDA indicate that, nationally, nearly 38 million birds (in 179 commercial flocks and 148 backyard flocks) have been infected this year so far.
The good news is that the disease spread is lessened as the seasonal temperatures rise. But rather than breathing a collective sigh of relief, we should take stock, once again, of how the industrial model of agriculture fares in the face of disaster.
When is a flock not a flock?
Our backyard egg production flock, which has fluctuated between sixty and one hundred birds, is not immune and could be lost. And, that would be hard on us and those who rely on the egg production on this farm. But, the Iowa government is not hyper-vigilant about bird flu in the state because they want to protect small producers like the Genuine Faux Farm. Instead, it has to do with protecting the giant confinement operations that think it makes sense to refer to 5.3 million birds as a "flock." The high population density in these operations is perfectly situated for rapid disease spread once a single bird becomes infected.
The opportunity for a disaster that impacts more people is much higher if one bird in the flock of five million gets infected, because all five million will be culled – a terrible waste and a cruel end. On the other hand, if our flock of one hundred contracts the disease, the catastrophe creates fewer ripples in the food supply.
We have all felt these ripples that are evidenced by increased egg prices at the grocery store. According to the USDA, "the average ad price [of eggs] increased sharply, up $1.24 to $2.71 per dozen, its highest level since the depths of the 2015 HPAI outbreaks."
Now might be a good time for me to reference the old saying that you should not put all of your eggs in one basket.
Smaller, diversified farms limit the risk
The recent HPAI outbreak is just one of the reasons I continue to push the idea that people, like you and me, should continue to source their food from local growers who raise poultry and other foods on a smaller scale, when possible. This is also why I believe we need to stop protecting, subsidizing, and encouraging the industrial model for food production. There have been at least three recent opportunities to learn the lesson that large corporate models for food production handle catastrophes poorly, with the COVID-19 pandemic and two bird flu outbreaks in the last decade. I don’t know about you, but I do not feel a need for another such lesson.
If we put more people on the land and promoted and supported small-scale, diversified operations, I believe there would be two desirable outcomes:
Prices would stabilize
Our food supply would respond less dramatically to catastrophic events
Farms like ours prefer to set a price that gives us a reasonable margin to cover our expenses. There is no benefit to us or you if we bounce our prices up and down in response to perceived supply and demand. This is food we're talking about – playing games with pricing is not appropriate. And yet, that’s exactly what happens when profit is the ultimate goal in food production.
When monetary profits are the focus of the food industry rather than the production of healthy, quality food, our food system is set up for failure when difficult times happen. When corporate interests are the driving force in food production rather than fair pricing for edibles produced by people who care for the land and their communities, it is more likely that extreme events will create even more havoc than they already have.
While I admire that there are people at the USDA that can produce detailed reports on egg prices, I guess I would rather have a report that analyzes whether we are actually feeding people well, giving growers the opportunity to raise good food, and treating the land with care and respect.