Avian flu losses: Pennsylvania poultry farmers getting $25M in grants

Pennsylvania leaders are providing millions to help poultry farmers recover from avian flu losses as the threat of disease-carrying waterfowl migrating over the state could happen again in the fall.

During the spring and early summer, 17 poultry farms in Lancaster and Berks counties lost 4.2 million birds due to highly pathogenic avian influenza. Pennsylvania’s poultry industry is $7.1 billion annually and employs more than 26,000.

HPAI can spread to poultry through contact with waterfowl, including water, food sources and fecal matter. The virus can be spread to poultry producers of all sizes through contaminated equipment or clothing. Migratory waterfowl traveling through North American flyways often intermingle with birds from Europe and Asia infected with the virus.

The Pennsylvania Legislature created the HPAI Recovery Reimbursement Grant Program to provide $25 million to help farmers affected by avian flu. In addition to the grants, Chris Herr, executive vice president of the PennAg Industries Association, praised the collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state to address the outbreak.

“You’re looking at one of the densest, most diverse poultry flocks in America right here,” Herr said in an interview with The Center Square. “We could have easily lost 30 million birds. I have to say this was one where the government on the state and federal level really got things right. And we were fortunate for the investment in Pennsylvania’s (agriculture) infrastructure.”

Herr said approximately 20% of the nation’s avian influenza testing was completed in Pennsylvania laboratories.

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, said the funding for poultry farmers was in the first version of the state budget and remained until signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

“This is just not a factory that you can turn on and off when you start making widgets,” Cutler said while on a poultry farm in Mount Joy affected by HPAI. “It’s very important we stay on top of this so that all of us as consumers – and family businesses where this is their way of life – can continue to thrive.”

Cutler and other state officials emphasized continued focus on farm biosecurity as the food supply can become a national security issue.

Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s agriculture secretary, said the funds will help poultry farmers regain a foothold after not having any income for months.

“This will not make anybody whole,” Redding said. “This is not about closing that loss. But it is making sure they can go forward in the best position.”

In addition to flocks being destroyed on farms where avian flu was found, farms within a three-kilometer radius were quarantined, leading to shutdowns of hundreds of farms.

“You can debate the merits of taxpayer money supporting private industries, but in these cases, it really gets back to families making a living farming,” Herr said. “They were put in a really difficult position by a foreign animal disease.”

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