Poultry will be absent from hundreds of state, county and local fairs this season. Beginning in March and escalating through the spring, the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) infected poultry flocks on farms throughout the U.S.
As a precautionary measure, Departments of Agriculture in more than a dozen states are forbidding the public exhibition of all forms of fowl, affecting 4-H competitions, exhibitions, swap meets, petting zoos, game bird and waterfowl.
H5N2 and H5N8 are the two strains of HPAI, the influenza that has been found on more than 170 farms in 20 states and 2 Canadian provinces. More than 35 million birds have died or been euthanized as a result of what officials call the largest avian influenza outbreak in U.S. history. Several nations, including Canada, South Korea, Phillipines and Austarial, have banned imports of all non-cooked poultry products from states where HPAI has appeared.
The Center For Disease Control has stated while "no human cases associated with this reassortant virus have been reported, it's possible this virus could infect people and cause serious disease."
There may be no imminent threat to the human population, but the U.S. poultry population - and a multi-billion dollar industry - is now at a deadly risk.
"It is something moving very quickly," said Marla J. Calico, CFE, Chief Operating Officer, International Association of Fairs & Expositions (IAFE). "The fairs don't have any choice. They have to follow what the Department of Agriculture or Director of Veterinarian Services says."
Many fairs are an off-shoot of a regional agriculture industry, and curtailing animal exhibitions at a fair to eliminate potential threats is nothing new. For example, in recent fair seasons,, H1N1, the "swine flu" curtailed pigs and hog competitions and exhibits at some fairs. There was an even an outbreak of avian influenza in 2011 that "caused a lot of concerns among fairs," said Calico. But the scope of this outbreak - the fear with H1N1 is that humans could be infected - and the banning of poultry at the fairs "is unprecedented. This disease threatens the entire poultry industry."
As of press time, states banning poultry from fairs are: North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, West Virginia, New York, North Carolina, Michigan and Nebraska. Montana and Idaho have a limited ban, affecting only water fowl. Not all states with reported outbreaks have implemented a ban on live exhibits of birds yet and some states who have imposed poultry bans at fairs and other events have yet to experience an HPAI outbreak, imposing the ban as a precautionary measure.
Calico pointed to that the disease may be showing signs of dissipating. "The data on this disease is that it thrives in cool and moist conditions. Once we get into the summer, when it is hotter and drier, the anticipation is that the disease will peak, then fail." On June 9th, it was reported that a turkey farm in Pope County, Minnesota - the first farm to detect a strain of HPAI, back in March - was finally restocked with birds.
A clean bill of health for one, previously infected farm does not mean the poultry industry is out of the woods, but at the least the recovery for the poultry industry has started. While all states are considering a poultry ban at fairs as part of the response to HPAI, some states are delaying the to-ban-or-not-to-ban decision.
"We have not banned poultry at the fair for 2015 and neither has the State Veterinarian's office," said Greg Hicks, Vice President, Communications, State Fair of Virginia. " We are all waiting to see how things progress throughout the summer and will make that call as close as we can to Sept. 25th."
But as Spring turns to Summer and the year's fair season gains momentum, the impact of the poultry ban on states is yet to be determined. What is known is that, due to absence of live animals, the poultry part of the fair will be very different without live animals, and fairs are testing the limits of their ingenuity to find new ways to present poultry at their annual fairs.
"I anticipate no impact to the attendance of fairs," said Calico. "I am sure that 4-H students will find very creative ways to finish their projects."
Besides having no avian representation at any exhibit at the fair, including petting zoos, Calico pointed out that, "some barns will be empty, but that is an opportunity to showcase the impact of the disease and educate the fairgoers about the poultry industry. The fairs are doing a fantastic job in coming with ideas for alternatives to replace the poultry exhibits at their fairs." On June 4th, the IAFE conducted an online webinar that covered the HPAI crisis - more than 200 fair professionals tuned in to participate. "Fairs are stepping up to the plate and ensuring they remain true to their mission of promoting agriculture. They are responding in a very positive way."
On June 2nd, Ric Crawford, CEO of the Shiawassee County Fair and President of the Michigan Association of Fairs & Exhibitions, learned that the Department of Agriculture banned poultry from all fairs in the state, affecting approximately 88 events, including county fairs and the two state fairs, the Michigan State Fair and the Upper Peninsula State Fair. There were no reports of HPAI in Michigan, but all the states bordering them did experience outbreaks.
"We were kind of surprised," said Crawford. "We knew there were other states with the ban, but didn't know that they would ban all poultry.
Crawford says that at Shiawassee County Fair the 4-H program and other exhibits expected more than 200 birds, "not just chickens, but turkeys, ducks and geese, all of them show birds."
The fowl show at the Shiawassee County Fair, which Crawford said is in the heart of the Michigan poultry industry, will go on, albeit in a new format. "We're still going to have our auction," said Crawford. But this year's 4-H poultry competition will be different. Participants will take photos of the animals and there will be what is known as a carcass judging, which means that the birds will be slaughtered at a processing plant, where winners will be "judged by the meat itself," said Crawford. "There will still be prizes and awards, and we will follow guidelines for carcass judging put out by the Department of Agriculture. What you don't want is for the kids not to be able to complete the process or sell the animal at the auction."
He added, "We are doing a few extra projects, like having exhibits about avian influenza. We are going to have a life-like model of a bird, and this will encourage showmanship, have the kids point out the different parts of the bird and answer questions from visitors."
Crawford estimates that state-wide, the number of would be 4-H poultry competitors and other poultry exhibitors affected by the ban "number into the thousands. Pretty much our hands our tied."
"All 95 fairs are affected by the ban," said Darrel Cubbison, president of the Ohio Fair Managers Association, and president of the Muskingum County fair. The 95 fairs he is referring to are the members of the Buckeye Eye State fair association. "We have very mixed feelings about the ban. It's a sad thing, the person who has been exhibiting for 10 years is not able to take his or her project this year."
The Ohio Department of Agriculture issued a report that the state ranks second in the nation in egg production and ninth nationally in turkey production. The state is home to 28 million laying chickens, 12 million broilers, 8.5 million pullets and 2 million turkeys. Ohio's egg, chicken and turkey farms provide more than 14,600 jobs. In 2015, out of the 69,653 total youth enrolled in 4-H organized community clubs, 9,113 4-H had poultry-related project.
Carnival Warehouse spoke with Cubbison only a few days after the ban was announced. Most fairs in Ohio are still determining how to feature this year. "Some fairs will have contests, but not have the birds on the premises and have the judging after the animal has been harvested at a dressing plant," he said. "At our fair, we will have empty pens in the poultry building, but have posters and that sort of thing. People who usually exhibit will be there to answer questions and educate the public."
Like other fair managers, Cubbison does not anticipate a drop in attendance at Ohio Fairs. "We may even get more people coming, just out of curiosity, because (HPAI) is so much in the news."
Fairs & Farms
While the scope of the ban may new, Robert Simpson, President of the New York State Association of Agricultural Fairs and fair manager of the Jefferson County Fair said, "this is really part of doing business, it is something we have been on top of. Fairs are subject all kinds of regulations, and we are part of the agricultural industry in the state."
The possibility of the ban had been a hot topic of conversations at recent industry, and "by the second week of May, we knew we were going to ban poultry in New York," he said. He estimates that 49 fairs are impacted by the ban - not all members of the Empire State's fair association are agricultural events.
"I don't think attendance will be affected," said Simpson. "Most of the people who have poultry, the 4-H kids, are still going to be there, the biggest thing is that we are seeing of people being upset about the fact the kids who have been working with their poultry may not have chance to get the ribbon. There are several fairs that are putting on educational programs about the avian flu, which 4-H is participating with."
Last year, a swine virus led to ban of piglets and milking sow at the New York State Fair, which did not negatively impact attendance. "In fact, we had one of our very best years ever," said Dave Bullard, spokesperson for the New York State Fair. "This should not affect attendance."
No live fowl will be on the premises, and the Youth Poultry Show has been cancelled. Bullard said 48 youngsters entered 63 birds in this event last. The interior layout of the Poultry Barn has also been re-designed. "The Poultry Barn has always been the home of not only all poultry but rabbits and cavies as well," said Bullard . "We'll spread out the rabbits and cavies and we are creating some fun events to highlight the rabbits. We'll also use this as an opportunity to educate Fairgoers about the avian flu issue, just as we did last year when we were forced to ban piglets and nursing sows."
The New York State Fair will still hold the 4-H Poultry Bowl, which Bullard described as a "knowledge competition." There will be one poultry exhibit with live birds at the New York State Fair., a baby chick birthing exhibit featured in the Youth Building. "The baby chicks are permitted because they are from one source and housed separately," explained Bullard.
According to Simpson, the fair he managers - the Jefferson County Fair - will also feature a baby chick hatching exhibit and ironically, it will be the first time an onsite chicken hatchery will available to fairgoers. "A 4-H Club has got an incubator and so we are allowed to have a hatchery just like the state fair," he said. "That really gets attention at a lot of fairs and because it is new here, that might help our attendance."