Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton declared a peacetime state of emergency Thursday to fight a deadly form of bird flu that has already killed millions of birds in the country's top turkey-producing state.
Dayton signed an executive order directing the emergency management division to activate its response plan and support the efforts of the Board of Animal Health and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to cope with the epidemic. Dayton said the order was needed to establish clearer "command and control" and dictate the roles entities will have in the response.
"This is a moving target and the number of farms affected continues to increase," Dayton said. "We don't know what the ceiling will be."
The governor also directed the Minnesota National Guard to provide personnel and equipment as needed but made it clear he wasn't yet mobilizing troops. His administration also stressed that the public health risk remains low.
"The poultry on grocery store shelves has always been safe and will continue to be safe," state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said.
Outbreaks of the highly pathogenic H5N2 avian influenza strain have already cost Minnesota turkey producers nearly 2.6 million birds since early March, while the toll at turkey and chicken farms across the Midwest has topped 7 million birds.
Final confirmations were still pending Thursday from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for two chicken farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin that had over 1 million more birds. That includes the first chicken farm in Minnesota to be affected, J&A Farms near Lake Park in Clay County, which is an egg-laying operation.
Co-owner Jareb Baer said Thursday he spotted a few dead and sickly birds in their flock of 275,000 hens Monday morning. They got preliminary positive results back from a lab in South Dakota that night for the H5N2 virus, he said. About 1,200 of their birds have died so far.
"It was a pretty sick feeling," Baer said. "I kind of knew right away. I didn't even need for the results to come back."
While they awaited final confirmation from the USDA, Baer said they proceeded with plans to euthanize the rest of the flock, which supplied eggs to supermarkets in northern Minnesota. He said their farm hadn't delivered any eggs since last week, and the eggs that were still out there on the market have been pulled back.
USDA officials visited the farm Wednesday and will pay them for the birds that are still alive, Baer said.
"They basically own the birds now. ... We're kind of at their mercy," he said. Neither the government nor insurance will pay them for the birds that or the money they'll lose while the farm is out of production. He wasn't sure how long it will take to do a full cleaning and disinfecting of their barns.
Dayton will meet with turkey producers in Willmar — home to Jennie-O Turkey Store, the country's No. 2 turkey processor — on Saturday to hear their concerns and field questions, Dayton said. Fifteen farms have been affected in Kandiyohi County, the state's top turkey producing county. Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and U.S. Sen. Al Franken will accompany Dayton.
State lawmakers are working to provide almost $900,000 in emergency funding, and Dayton has said he'll sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
"Right now, everybody's pulling together and that's the way it should be," the governor said.