Gov. Tim Walz, U.S. senators visit west-central Minnesota to meet with those responding to avian flu
State and federal lawmakers, as well as the state's agriculture commissioner and director of the state Board of Animal Health, came to Kandiyohi County on Tuesday to speak to area poultry producers
WILLMAR, Minn. — Minnesota is proud of its agricultural heritage, including being the No. 1 producer of turkeys in the nation. Unfortunately, that also means the state is being hit hard by this year's outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza.
Since late March, nearly 1.4 million turkeys and chickens in Minnesota have been impacted and culled at 40 different sites — most of them commercial poultry producers and six of them in Kandiyohi County alone.
"We knew this was coming. We saw it show up months ago on the East Coast," said Gov. Tim Walz at a news conference in Willmar on Tuesday, held after a roundtable meeting among local and state officials to discuss the state's response to the avian flu.
Walz, along with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, traveled to Willmar to speak with those directly impacted by the outbreak — including poultry producers and industry folks along with staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state Board of Animal Health, who are working nearly nonstop to help slow the spread of the disease. The governor and senators were joined by Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and Minnesota Board of Animal Health Executive Director Dr. Beth Thompson.
Minnesota started ramping up its response once the disease started showing up in other states, so when the first cases was identified in Meeker and Mower counties on March 25, everything was ready, including emergency operations centers and case managers to work with each individual farm. Lessons learned from the 2015 outbreak have also assisted in reacting to this year's surge.
"What we do know (is) we are in a much better space" this time around, Klobuchar, D-Minn., said.
Based on the data being collected from infected barns, it seems that the vast majority of the spread this year is coming from wild migrating waterfowl, such as geese and ducks, that are infecting single farms. That is a change from 2015, when a lot of the transmission was caused by humans spreading disease particles.
"The industry since 2015 in Minnesota, and the backyard flocks, have really stepped up that biosecurity," Thompson said, "meaning that our farmers and our backyard flock owners aren't tracking the virus from farm to farm to farm. What we are seeing are individual introductions."
There is a low risk of the avian flu impacting human health and so far there have been no reported human cases in the United States. There is also no concern regarding food safety, Walz said.
What isn't known at this time is whether the disease can be spread by songbirds, though the disease is having an impact on the state's raptor population including bald eagles and owls.
Thompson said residents should use common sense on whether to continue filling their backyard bird feeders. If a home is near a water source where waterfowl congregate, it might not be a bad idea to cut back on feeding.
Thompson said organizations such as the University of Minnesota are studying the question of how songbirds and other backyard birds fit into the avian flu equation.
"They are looking at (it). There are questions about all different types of birds," Thompson said.
Because of this more "popcorn" like spread of the virus, where one farm might be impacted but not another in the same area, each individual farm needs to look closely at how wild waterfowl could spread the disease into barns.
"It is site-specific. It all depends on that certain site, that certain farmer and their workers," Thompson said. "The ultimate goal is to keep the virus out, but it is not one size fits all."
State leaders are also keeping a close eye on the toll the outbreak is having on the producers and their families. Whether it is the financial loss or the emotional anguish of having to kill their entire flock at one time, it is a difficult time for the farmers and their families.
The state Department of Agriculture has invested in having mental health support for farmers, including hiring two counselors on staff and implementing the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline , which is staffed 24/7. Those needing to talk can call, email and even text.
"Everybody needs help," Smith said. "Asking for help is a sign of strength, not of weakness."
On the financial side, both state and federal lawmakers are looking at ways to support producers who have lost their entire flocks, as well as making sure funding remains available to continue responding to the outbreak.
Walz signed a $1 million emergency avian flu response bill early this month, and other economic relief could be coming to producers.
"We are trying to get people at least back to zero, so they can repopulate and get going," Walz said.
Like probably everyone in Minnesota, those impacted by and responding to the outbreak are keeping an eye on the weather forecast and hoping for warmer temperatures. The wet and cold is a contributing factor to the continued spread of the avian flu, and there is a concern that the state might still have several weeks of case growth due to weather as waterfowl continue their travels.
"The environment needs to warm up, we need to heat up and we need to dry out," Thompson said. "Getting the wild waterfowl out of here — we can't do anything about that, but they will finish their migratory patterns that they go through."
Despite the challenges the outbreak is causing, those speaking at the news conference were all impressed by the state's response so far. They commended, again and again, the different partners who have been working together to react quickly to outbreaks while also being there for the producers impacted.
"Our state excels in working together and not having turf wars and getting things done," Klobuchar said.