In early July, White House officials rejected Gov. Branstad's request asking President Obama to declare a federal emergency in Iowa as a result of the avian influenza outbreak that struck the state this spring. In Iowa alone, 32 million chickens and turkeys have been lost since March. Once the weather warmed up in June, the disease subsided and no more infected poultry flocks were reported. However, USDA officials say another outbreak could occur when cooler weather returns this fall, possibly as early as September. The virus survives in cooler weather.
Bird flu is a big deal in Iowa, which has been hit harder than any other state. A total of 15 states have been hit with this virus so far in 2015. Iowa is the leading egg state, producing 17% of the nation's eggs. About half of Iowa's egg layer flock has been destroyed this year. Iowa ranks in the top 10 for turkey production and has lost a significant number of those birds, too.
U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is disappointed about the denial of Gov. Branstad's request for a presidential disaster declaration to help poultry producers, their employees and others impacted by bird flu. After hearing testimony from affected producers, Grassley told Wallaces Farmer it's clear the outbreak has caused significant economic damage throughout the state. The economic impact tops the $1.6 billion mark alone in Iowa and Minnesota, two of the hardest hit states.
Largest animal health emergency in U.S. history
"I'm disappointed Gov. Branstad's request was denied by the Obama Administration," says Grassley. "After our July 7 Senate Ag Committee hearing and listening to testimony from poultry producers affected, it's very clear this outbreak caused a magnitude of damage across Iowa. The administration's own chief veterinarian says it was the largest animal health emergency in our nation's history. We heard from one Iowa producer who lost two-thirds of his birds to the disease, and he is not alone."
Grassley adds, "Granting a disaster declaration would have made several forms of federal assistance available to these producers. Iowa has suffered great losses from this catastrophic outbreak of bird flu. I'm very disappointed a disaster declaration wasn't granted to help deal with the impact of this damaging disease."
Disaster declaration would have helped several ways
Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey issued the following statement regarding President Obama denying Branstad's request for a presidential disaster declaration to assist with response to the highly pathogenic avian influenza. "Iowa has had 77 sites or facilities infected with the disease this year," notes Northey. "That's a total of over 32 million chickens and turkeys in Iowa either killed by the disease or that had to be destroyed to prevent spread of the disease."
"The Iowa Department of Agriculture has worked hand-in-hand with USDA throughout this outbreak," Northey adds. "It's disappointing that the Obama Administration denied our governor's request to allow much needed federal resources to come into Iowa to assist poultry farmers and others who've been adversely impacted. Our state department of agriculture will continue to work closely with the farmers. And work with local officials, other agencies and federal partners as the infected farms continue to do the cleaning and disinfecting and move toward repopulating their facilities."
Could there be a "Round 2" of bird flu?
Many experts think bird flu will return this fall. Colder-than- usual temperatures and migratory birds such as ducks and geese contributed to this spring's big outbreak. Branstad, at a recent press conference, told Wallaces Farmer he doesn't want Iowa to be unprepared this fall.
"We need to get a better idea of where this virus is coming from and how we can prevent it from reoccurring here. We must figure out what can be done," says Branstad. "We're looking to USDA and the expertise they have to give us help and guidance."
The governor plans to attend USDA's "bird flu summit" to be held in Iowa later this month. Scheduled for July 28-29 in Des Moines, the two-day meeting is sponsored by several national poultry organizations.
Not much more Congress can do to try to help
Iowa U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst says there's not much more Congress can do. Branstad asked Obama to allow poultry producers who were contractors and their employees who might not have paid into the unemployment compensation program, to collect emergency benefits until their poultry operations are repopulated and up and running again. However, Ernst says now that President Obama has said "no," there's not much chance Congress can do anything.
"Bird flu so far, is limited to about 20 states," she says. "I'd like to be optimistic that we could get this emergency declared to help producers and their employees who've been hurt by the destruction of millions of birds and who will be out of business for a while. But any legislation we propose would take a large amount of time to get through Congress. And such legislation likely wouldn't be supported by members of Congress who represent states not impacted by this year's bird flu outbreak."
Will USDA create insurance program for poultry?
During the Congressional hearings on avian flu earlier this month, Senators and USDA officials confirmed there is talk of creating a new insurance program (similar to crop insurance) for poultry producers. So far though, little progress is being made to provide that type of risk management tool and use it for future outbreaks.
Meanwhile, state and ag industry officials are racing the calendar as they prepare for a possible recurrence of avian flu this fall in Iowa. Branstad notes that the experts believe lower temperatures and migratory birds apparently contributed to this spring's big outbreak and he doesn't want Iowa to be unprepared when they both come back.
Summit scheduled for July 28 & 29 in Des Moines
Branstad adds: "Hopefully, we'll have the best information available being presented at the upcoming bird flu summit in Des Moines. So we can learn and be as well-prepared as possible for the likely return of bird flu this coming fall."
No one wants to see another 32 million Iowa chickens and turkeys killed directly by bird flu disease or to be euthanized and sacrificed to try to keep the disease from spreading to non-infected flocks and facilities. Experts say the cooler temperatures of fall and migratory birds returning to Iowa and carrying the virus, could likely contribute to another disease outbreak.
Iowa officials ponder whether to appeal decision
Will Iowa officials and the state's poultry industry appeal President Obama's decision to deny Iowa the federal emergency disaster declaration? Will they ask the White House to reconsider? Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers says the governor's staff is gathering information to assess whether or not making an appeal would be effective.
Branstad had originally sought the federal disaster declaration for the four counties most impacted by the bird flu virus in spring 2015 in Iowa. In response, he received a letter on July 7. "It was from the White House," says Branstad. "The letter said our request for an emergency declaration was rejected. The letter said the damage in Iowa was not of such severity and magnitude, that it could not be handled by the state."
Bird flu emergency proclamation is extended in Iowa
On July 13, Gov. Branstad signed a proclamation extending the state of Iowa's cleanup efforts involved with the bird flu outbreak. Branstad signed a disaster emergency proclamation for 18 Iowa counties adversely affected by bird flu. It is effective until Dec. 31 and extends a proclamation that was set to expire July 31.
The proclamation is aimed at helping chicken and turkey producers with disposal and cleanup efforts on affected sites. The proclamation temporarily allows them to dispose of manure and compost from an affected site if the material is virus-free. The proclamation applies to Adair, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Cherokee, Clay, Hamilton, Kossuth, Lyon, Madison, O'Brien, Osceola, Palo Alto, Plymouth, Pocahontas, Sac, Sioux, Webster and Wright counties.