- The Washington Times - Friday, November 15, 2002

MOUNT JACKSON, Va. — The last turkey infected with avian influenza on Steve Long's farm was euthanized four months ago. . But two weeks before Thanksgiving, the 50-year old turkey grower still has little to gobble about. The farm will lose an estimated $500,000 this year because of the worst avian flu outbreak to strike the poultry industry in Virginia.

"It was a massive setback and very costly," says Mr. Long, who runs Franwood Farms Inc., one of the state's largest turkey operations.

For 90 days, beginning in July, Franwood Farms had no turkeys.

"I never remember not having turkeys here. I didn't really know what to do," Mr. Long said.

The farm had no income from late April until early October.

Mr. Long and 10 full-time employees at Franwood Farms raise turkeys for Pilgrim's Pride Corp., a Texas-based company. It is one of just two poultry processors hiring Virginia farmers to produce turkeys.

Pilgrim's Pride drops off newly hatched turkeys and Mr. Long oversees the massive operation to raise the birds. When the turkeys are 19 weeks old, Pilgrim's Pride reclaims their brood and ships them to a processing plant in Rockingham County.

At Mr. Long's farm, the process is largely automated. Food and water are dispensed mechanically. As many as 6,000 turkeys live in a single house, roaming free in the crowded shelters. Workers check on the birds daily to make sure ventilation systems are functioning.

Even though Franwood Farms provides contract labor for Pilgrim's Pride, the nation's second-largest poultry company with $2.5 billion in sales in fiscal 2002, working for the poultry behemoth provided Mr. Long no protection from a silent, invisible enemy that claimed his flock.

The flu kills poultry by causing respiratory infection and pneumonia, though it's not harmful to humans. In fact, not all poultry succumb to the virus, but the state department of agriculture endorsed the plan to euthanize birds to contain the flu outbreak.

Mr. Long is recalling the rapid progression of avian influenza through his flock at Franwood, the turkey farm in Shenandoah County that his father started in the 1940s. The farm covers 1,400 acres, and while he recalls the details, Mr. Long, the youngest of four sons, is sitting behind the wheel of a green pickup.

Avian influenza raged through four counties in the Shenandoah Valley, the heart of the commonwealth's turkey industry: Augusta, Page, Rockingham and Shenandoah. Two other counties Greene and Highland each reported an outbreak at just one farm.

Virginia suffered its last avian influenza outbreak in 1983, when 1.4 million turkeys were euthanized to contain the virus, but it didn't spread to Shenandoah County that year.

This year, Franwood Farms was ravaged.

The first infected poultry in Virginia was discovered March 12. For two months, turkeys at Franwood avoided the airborne disease. But in mid-May, blood tests determined that turkeys in three of the 36 poultry houses at the farm outside Mount Jackson were infected. The initial outbreak led to the euthanization of 20,000 turkeys. Then the virus hopped to more turkey houses, and another 24,000 birds had to be destroyed.

The virus spread five times and led to the euthanization of the farm's entire flock of 125,000 birds.

He isn't the only one reeling from the avian flu outbreak in Virginia, where 153 growers lost 3.7 million turkeys this year.

The birds are a commodity, but Mr. Long felt remorse when the virus spread to his flocks.

"You have them until they're this big," says Mr. Long, holding his hands just inches apart. "That was the toughest day waiting for the phone to ring and hear them say they were coming."

The gruesome job of euthanizing the birds fell to Pilgrim's Pride workers. They killed turkeys by covering them with tarps and forcing them to breathe carbon dioxide.

He couldn't watch.

"I didn't want to be part of that," he said.

No infected poultry were found in the state after July 2.

Before the outbreak reached his farm, Mr. Long narrowly avoided his own death. On April 28 a tornado tore through Shenandoah County. The tornado an F2 in intensity, according to National Weather Service data stayed on the ground for four miles. Mr. Long and four of his colleagues took shelter under a workbench in an airplane hangar on his property.

It tore the roof off the hangar and flipped one plane. A 60-foot grain silo at Franwood Farms was ripped from the ground and deposited on a neighbor's roof, about 200 yards away. A dog was injured. A cat was never found. Two turkey houses in the path of the tornado were destroyed.

The twister did its damage in less than a minute.

But the avian influenza's slow death march through Franwood was in some ways a more painful experience than the devastation caused by the tornado, Mr. Long said.

The flu outbreak is a serious setback to Virginia, the nation's fourth-leading turkey-producing state. Virginia poultry farmers will lose an estimated $130 million this year due to the avian flu outbreak, said Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, a Harrisonburg trade group representing the state's turkey and chicken growers and its poultry-processing plants.

"The economic impact is devastating for many of these farms. I hope they can recover, but right now it's kind of tough. Hopefully we won't lose growers, but I think the jury is still out," Mr. Bauhan said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has authorized $61 million in aid for the state's poultry farmers, but the money hasn't reached them yet.

Life appears to be getting back to normal at Franwood. Mr. Long stands in a turkey house surrounded by more than 6,000 2-week-old turkeys. They barely reach above his ankles.

Franwood has 90,000 birds now. By February they hope to have as many turkeys as before the flu outbreak. Mr. Long says he never thought seriously about getting out of the business after the outbreak annihilated his flock.

"We have too much invested in this. We're committed to growing turkeys," he said.

Despite his resolve, Mr. Long is hoping for a fresh start that only a new year can provide.

"I'm just counting the days until this year is over," he said.

Before that, he will sit down with his family on Thanksgiving day and dig into a big turkey raised on his farm. Then he can recall all the hurdles he and the others at Franwood overcame this year.

Mr. Long has plenty of reasons to be thankful, but he boils it down to one.

"I'm just thankful that we're still here," he said.

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