MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Lifelong turkey farmer Greg Langmo knew as soon as the young flock that usually clustered around him like curious little puppies turned lethargic and stopped eating that his Minnesota farm had been struck by the bird flu that has shaken the poultry industry.
Part of the loss is financial: Langmo lost more than 30,000 turkeys at his farm near Litchfield, and expects to lose well over $100,000 even after partial government compensation. But a big part is emotional, too, even for large-scale farmers, who take pride in caring for their birds.
"They looked just awesome — clean-feathered and red-headed. They were really a nice flock to be around. We really enjoyed them, and that came to a screeching halt," Langmo, 57, told The Associated Press.
Bird flu has badly shaken the Midwest poultry industry, which has lost nearly 28 million chickens and turkeys already. Farmers are facing huge losses, and one plant laid off workers Tuesday because of short supplies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza virus on more than 100 Midwest farms since early March. Hardest hit have been Minnesota, the country's top turkey producing state, and Iowa, the No. 1 egg producer.
Scientists believe migratory waterfowl carry the virus. Wild ducks and geese don't become sick from it, but can spread it via their droppings. The virus then finds its way into poultry barns despite tight biosecurity, perhaps carried in on workers' footwear or clothing, or maybe hitchhiking on contaminated dust whipped up by the wind.
The 13-week-old toms Langmo lost were meant to be slaughtered and turned into sandwich meat at around 18 to 19 weeks old. One of Langmo's employees first noticed that something wasn't right in one of his barns two weeks ago. Test results quickly confirmed the devastating news. A few days later, turkeys started getting sick in his two other barns.
While the federal government will compensate Langmo for his birds that were euthanized, he gets nothing for birds killed by the flu itself. No insurance covers such losses either. Add to that the threat of a resurgence of the virus this fall when birds fly south for the winter and the lack of a vaccine, and Langmo fears that banks won't risk lending to help keep affected producers like him afloat.
Langmo plans to cut every possible expense until he can start raising and marketing turkeys again. But if his bank account runs dry first, he's finished.
"We're going to spend the checkbook to zero and at that point we're going to have to close," he said.
And it's not just farmers who are feeling the pain. Jennie-O Turkey Store, the country's second-largest turkey processor, said Tuesday it will lay off 233 employees at its plant in the southern Minnesota city of Faribault because bird flu outbreaks have cut supplies.
For farmers, the emotional and financial stresses are adding up, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the Chicken and Egg Association of Minnesota. Producers are trying everything they can think of to keep the virus off their farms and wondering if their flocks will become infected anyway, he said.
"They're on high alert, and on high alert for an extended period of time," Olson said.
Among those whose flocks get sick, Olson said the most common initial reaction is dismay because they can't do much except watch their birds die. "It's a pretty traumatic experience to go through," Olson said.
He's welcoming new efforts by local mental health agencies in some affected counties to ensure that counseling is available to farmers who need it. He also cited business, legal and mental health services available through the state-sponsored Minnesota Farmer Assistance Network.
"It's really difficult," Langmo said. "I've spent an entire career making sure turkeys were comfortable and happy and had whatever they needed, from heat to light to vaccine or new bedding. And to know there's nothing you can do for them, it's a helpless feeling."