top of page

Avian flu detected after animal extremists recently infiltrated local duck farms by night



December 1, 2023

Outbreaks of the deadly and highly virulent avian flu virus have been detected at two Sonoma County poultry operations near Petaluma, forcing the euthanasia of more than a quarter of a million ducks and laying hens and putting a nearly $50 million local industry at risk.

The economic loss at the Sunrise Farms chicken operation alone could be more than $3 million, according to fourth-generation farmer and Sunrise co-owner Michael Weber.

“The entire farm has to be euthanized,” he said Friday, noting crews from the California Department of Food and Agriculture had closed the grounds and begun the work of euthanizing up to 80,000 hens. “And we’re watching the other ranches. It’s a waiting game.”

The outbreaks and the fallout are the worst in perhaps a century of poultry farming in Sonoma County, Weber said.

The first case of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza was detected at Reichardt Duck Farm in the Two Rock area Nov. 22, the day before Thanksgiving, where crews had to dispose of the entire stock of 169,300 birds.

The second was detected Monday at a Sunrise site, located west of Petaluma off Bodega Avenue.

Both companies grappling with infection were at the center of a high-profile court case involving animal rights protests and incursions by the Berkeley-based group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, including several recent incidents in which activists infiltrated the duck farm by night.

The Reichardt family’s duck breeding enterprise has been in operation since 1910, through six generations and a century of genetic development, and staff are working frantically to clean and disinfect the property quickly enough to hatch the eggs that remain, said Philip Reichardt, who is a fifth-generation owner.

But the timing is awful, with the winter holidays approaching and Lunar New Year after that, when duck will be in high demand at Chinese restaurants throughout the Bay Area, which are key Reichardt customers.

The loss, he said, “is hard to put into words. It’s devastating.”

Weber said the virus turned up at Sunrise in the one of three houses sheltering laying hens and that symptoms began appearing in a second house by Friday.

Both of the affected farms are in an area of southern Sonoma County that’s long been the region’s poultry belt, with several egg and poultry ranches, including Perdue Farms and Petaluma Poultry. Both are close enough that Weber said he feared virus shed by infected birds could go airborne and spread “like wildfire.”

He estimated about 1 million farm birds are being raised within a 5-mile radius of his farm.

Weber said he hoped he and state agriculture authorities could hold the line at Sunrise but said, “as soon as we went positive, or suspected we were going positive, I was on the phone with everybody. So we’re a tight community.”

The type of avian flu detected in Sonoma County and elsewhere in California is classified “high pathogen” because of its severity and infection rate among birds. Though wild birds may be asymptomatic, it can be deadly to domestic birds, especially chickens. It is not easily transmitted to humans.

Federal and state food-safety protocols require that an entire flock be destroyed if a single case is detected. The animals cannot be removed from the property, so they are typically composted while the site is quarantined for up to three months.

Compost piles attended by workers in protective suits were visible on the Reichardt site Friday.

A spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture said a geographic perimeter known as a “control area” is established around each center of infection for testing of nearby birds and surveillance. The surveillance zone covers the area within a 6.2-mile radius of the infected flock.

Across the U.S., more than 68 million birds have been infected during a two-year outbreak of bird flu that began last year in the Carolinas. It has spread to 47 states since, including 26 in the past 30 days, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The virus is carried primarily by waterfowl, including geese, which may transmit it along their migration routes. Many of those routes lead them to California and the Central Valley. Infection can be transmitted directly, through saliva droplets or feces, or indirectly, on shoes, gloves, clothes and equipment.

In addition to Sonoma County, the virus was detected in commercial flocks in San Benito County this week, and has been in Fresno and Merced counties since October. It also has been detected in wild birds and backyard flocks in several other counties.

State, federal and local agricultural leaders have been on high alert throughout the outbreak, urging maximum biosecurity measures at poultry farms and even waiving requirements that certified organic operations must allow birds to go outside — now deemed unsafe, given the potential for infection.

Since July 2022, 15 wild birds in Sonoma County have tested positive for the virus, most recently in June 2023, according to USDA data. And there were two previous positive tests in domestic birds in the county, both in January 2023. Those two cases involved 26 birds. Neither was a commercial operation.

Discovery of the disease in local commercial flocks is a threat to a historic industry that last year boasted more than 2.6 million laying hens, pullets and broilers, according to the most recent Sonoma County crop report.

Sonoma County Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith said eggs and egg products contributed nearly $39 million to the local agricultural economy last year, with poultry meat products contributing almost $9 million.

Smith said he had confidence in the emergency response of the state’s agriculture department and was “not extremely concerned about it spreading to other county farms at this point because our poultry farms in Sonoma County practice very stringent biosecurity practices to mitigate the introduction of diseases.”

But the impact will likely ripple across Sonoma County’s economy and beyond. Consumers will likely see higher prices for eggs, chicken, duck and other poultry at the grocery store.

Sunrise Farms, controlled by a partnership of six owners, and Weber Family Farms, owned by Weber and his brother, together employ about 150 people, Mike Weber said. More than twice that many people are employed by businesses closely tied to the firms, he said.

Sunrise also is a major supplier of organic fertilizer used in the wine and cannabis industries across California, Weber said.

“This affects all of us,” said Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

In addition to the larger farms that are affected, a number of mom-and-pop egg handlers around the county are on alert, she and Smith said.

The fallout also puts livelihoods at risk not just among those who work on the farms but for restaurateurs and others who depend on products that are now unavailable.

Reichardt, for instance, employs up to 70 people, many of them loyal workers for decades, said John Reichardt, Philip’s father.

“That’s a lot of people that have been with us for a lot of years,” he said, and they hope to keep them employed.

The Reichardts, Weber and local agricultural leaders said they are struggling to believe it’s mere coincidence that the virus cropped up at companies whose sites have been targeted repeatedly by Direct Action Everywhere, the activist group, particularly when there is evidence and even admissions that members have recently come into the duck farm by night. Some of those incursions occurred within the 10-day to two-week incubation period for avian influenza, Philip Reichardt said.

Both farm owners said they had adhered to strict biosecurity measures that have been reviewed and approved after the outbreaks by state and federal agriculture officials.

Making social media posts showing DxE members inside the Reichardt farm is “admitting the fact that you are breaking biosecurity protocol, and now we’re here,” Ghirardelli, the farm bureau leader, said.

Smith said he was aware that the state agriculture agency would consider trespassing as a possible way the virus was introduced as it investigates the local origins of the virus.

But there is yet no specific evidence to point to DxE nor proof they were present at Sunrise recently, though it has been a target before.

On Thursday, a Sonoma County Superior Court judge sentenced the organization’s founder, Wayne Hsiung, of Berkeley, to 90 days in county jail for his involvement in DxE incursions on Reichardt and Sunrise properties in 2018 and 2019.

The organization is in the process of collecting signatures to place a measure on the November 2024 ballot that would sharply limit animal-based agriculture in Sonoma County by outlawing farms classified by the federal government as concentrated animal feeding operations. That would include more than 40 of the county’s dairies or 97% of those in operation, according to the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Speaking in court during a victim impact statement Thursday, Weber testified about the impact activists' demonstrations and incursions on farm properties have had on his business and others in the area.

“This isn't about improving welfare for animals. It's about eliminating them from our food system," he told The Press Democrat.

A member of DxE pushed back against the agricultural interests’ suggestion that her group might be to blame for the recent test results.

“Reichardt Duck Farm has had rampant disease among its flocks for a decade now, as exposed by numerous investigations and necropsy reports,” representative Cassie King wrote in an email. “The company has a host of poor biosecurity practices including cramming ducks together in massive barns with mesh walls. It's no surprise to hear that they have an outbreak of avian flu.”

She shared a 2014 Huffington Post story about a video released by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals, allegedly showing animal cruelty at Reichardt, as well as a 2019 case report by Sonoma County Animal Services that detailed the removal of 16 dead ducks from the property in the wake of a protest.

King questioned the timing of the announcement, noting the recent arrest of three DxE activists at a sentencing hearing for Hsiung, who was convicted of conspiracy and trespassing.

“It looks like they are trying to deflect blame for their bad practices onto the whistleblowers they want to silence,” King wrote. “We mourn for the animals killed at this horrendous facility this week and every week.”

She declined to confirm or rebut the allegation of DxE making an incursion onto the Reichardt farm in November.

Maurice Pitesky, a faculty member at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine who specializes in poultry health and food safety epidemiology, said a bioterrorism attack is not inconceivable.

“If I wanted to be an evil genius, and I found a dead duck in a park or some dead geese in a park, and I took that duck and I rubbed its fecal material all over my shoes, and then I went somewhere and tried to spread it — you know, sneaked onto a farm and then threw a shoe — yeah, certainly that's plausible,” he said.

But as Pitesky emphasized, it’s also entirely plausible that a wild bird introduced the virus to the Sonoma County farms.

“We’re in the thick of it,” he said. “This is avian influenza season. And even with the best of the best biosecurity, we're sometimes swinging and missing, and we’re getting positives.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On X/Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page