I want to thank everyone for the outpouring of support and understanding for the very hard decision we had to make to cancel the 2015 Farm Tour. Not only have there been expressions of support, but numerous offers of help. A farmer I talked to at the market on Saturday told me that canceling the tour would hurt their farm business but she understood and agreed with our decision and then asked me “How can we help?” Wow. And she is not the only farmer or community member that has asked how they can help. You are an amazing group of people. Our answer remains – support farmers, shop at markets, go to u-picks and farm stores, continue to buy local eggs and chicken, and reserve your turkey for Thanksgiving.
Coming to the decision to cancel the Farm Tour might best be described as “agonizing” for me and ASAP staff. We wanted to be as thorough as possible without alarming anyone or having rumors spread. The decision may have felt sudden to some of you, but it was a very deliberative process. I wish we could have known earlier so that the time and money spent on preparing for the tour, both for farmers and us, could have been put to other things. We will, though, pull ourselves up and use this unfortunate circumstance as an educational opportunity, both on the challenges of farming and the need to support our farms.
I, like most everyone else, was aware of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and the staggering number of birds that were dying when it began to hit the news just a few months ago. The actual outbreak was first detected on the west coast in December 2014, but the numbers of farms was small and they were all backyard and small flock so the story did not get much attention. The flu did not hit bigger operations until it got to California.
It turns out that the Avian Influenza was being transported to farms by migrating waterfowl. That is why the initial outbreaks were small. Farm birds that could interact with the wild birds were catching the flu directly from them. When the migrating birds brought the flu to the midwest in late spring and early summer, it became clear that this was an unprecedented outbreak – one that was both highly contagious and nearly completely lethal to the domesticated birds. Unlike the isolated outbreaks in the west that were being primarily transported by wild birds, these new outbreaks were being moved around by people. This is when the stories hit the news and we started discussing the issue within ASAP and in the context of the Farm Tour.
Like a lot of people I thought this flu was caused (or massively accelerated) by the large poultry operations that had thousands (and tens of thousands) of birds in a single barn and that it would not be a threat to small operations and backyard flocks. It had also not registered for me that, as deaths were declining (and finally ending) in June, that they could flare back up again in the fall.
It turns out that the flu does not like hot weather. The reason that the deaths from the outbreak ended in June was because it was getting hotter. The wild birds that carry the disease (but don’t show symptoms or get sick) continued on their migration as outbreaks declined and then stopped. The last outbreak was reported in mid-June. By this point, nearly 50 million birds in 21 states were dead and everyone knew about the outbreak.
It was not until June through August that we started getting information that indicated that the Avian Influenza might hit North Carolina and that we should be preparing. On June 9, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) announced that they would hold information sessions on Avian Influenza. On June 11, NCDA&CS announced that they were canceling poultry shows and sales from August 15, 2015 to January 15, 2016. On August 22, 2015, the NCDA&CS put out a press release saying the state of North Carolina was prepping for HPAI and asking farms with poultry to register their flocks with the state. All of this was a wakeup call. We started looking more deeply into the issue. What we were unable to get from anyone was a clear indication on whether we should be having a farm tour at that time of year. I assumed, that if the threat of the flu was so severe, an official governmental agency would let us know that we should not have a tour. That never happened so we proceeded to put our time and money in the tour, while digging deeper to see if we could find out more.
By this point, late August, farms had already invested their time and money, ASAP had conducted trainings, we had created and distributed 10,000 Farm Tour guides, put together and distributed tour materials for the farms, recruited and trained over 100 volunteers, and so much more.
Because of our great desire to save the tour, we undoubtedly took a week or so longer than we could have to make the call. We really did not want to cancel the tour. We know how important that day is for farm sales and the relationships farmers develop with their customers. We know that our community values the tour and wants to go to farms. In the end, the risk was just too big.
On August 24, the Eastern Triangle Farm tour was canceled followed shortly by the canceling of the Person County NC farm tour. On Wednesday, September 2, after ten days of talking to dozens of farmers, other organizations, the NC State Veterinarian, agritourism officials, extension agents, and others we made a final decision. I called ASAP’s staff together for an impromptu meeting, I made the announcement, and we had a very somber discussion. So many people in that room had put in hundreds of hours of work, from designing maps and materials to outreach to training and everything else that goes into a multi-farm multi-day event. They were watching it all disappear right before their eyes. And it was not the work that mattered as much as the love of the tour and the fervent belief that the Farm Tour is important for our community, a way to truly experience local food, the farm landscape, and meet farmers.
Here’s what’s inspiring to me though – within minutes of announcing the cancellation to staff, we shifted to the planning on how to deal with this new reality. We put a timeline in place and everyone had a role. We needed to notify farmers and set up a meeting with as many as we could on very short notice to let them know before we announced publicly. We needed to provide farmers with answers to their questions to help them protect their flocks, but also to educate the community about this issue. We needed straightforward communications for the web. We needed a press release and letter from me announcing the cancellation. And more. And we needed it quick. At the same time, local press was calling us asking about the tour.
Later in the day on September 2, the NCDA&CS Veterinary Division issued a memo to organic growers strongly recommending that they immediately move all outdoor birds inside, implement strong biosecurity measures, and monitor their flocks for disease.
By that evening I sent out a notice to the Farm Tour farms that we had to cancel. I also set up a phone conference with the farms and the NCDA&CS State Veterinarian for the next day (Thursday) to make sure they had an expert to answer their questions about this disease. On Friday morning, I had an interview with the Asheville Citizen-Times, and ASAP staff created many documents and put them up to the web and sent them out to farmers. By early afternoon I wrote up an announcement for our website and for the ASAP email list. Soon after we sent out the press release. That afternoon the Citizen-Times posted the story online and WLOS went to East Fork Farm and came to the ASAP office to run a story on the cancellation.
All in all, it has been a hectic and emotional couple of weeks. Thanks again everyone for the understanding and support. I will continue writing about this important issue as events unfold.
6/9/15 NCDA&CS announces they will hold HPAI info sessions
6/11/15 NCDA&CS cancels poultry shows and sales for the fall
7/22/15 NCDA&CS issues press release saying the state is prepping for HPAI; asks that all NC poultry flocks be registered with the state
8/24/15 Eastern Triangle Farm Tour canceled
8/28/15 Person County Farm Tour canceled
9/2/15 ASAP makes decision to cancel – sends notice to farms
9/2/15 NCDA&CS Veterinary Division memo to organic farmers issued
9/3/15 ASAP conference call with Farm Tour farms
9/4/15 ASAP press release announcing cancellation of 2015 Farm Tour due to threat of HPAI