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As avian flu spreads, officials mull options -- and Willmar waits

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Bob Sonstegard showed a photo of his farm.
Bob Sonstegard, middle, showed U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, left, a picture of his farm from above. Peterson said the Sonstegard family lost 3.7 million chickens to the avian flu on their farm in Iowa.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Kandiyohi County is in the heart of Minnesota's turkey-producing region. It's the state's largest turkey-producing county, and it's the home of some of the state's turkey-producing roots: The Jennie-O brand, now owned by Hormel, was founded in Willmar. 

Now, the Willmar area holds the unenviable distinction of dealing with the most cases of the avian H5N2 influenza virus.  

Gov. Mark Dayton said he will ask the state executive council Monday to consider whether to extend the state of emergency declared last week because of the avian flu.  

About 50 poultry farms in Minnesota have been hit by the virus, with nearly three million turkeys and chickens lost.  After a visit Saturday to the hardest-hit region of the state, Dayton, Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson pledged their help for hard-pressed farmers. 

After a series of mostly closed-door meetings Saturday, the governor said turkey producers in Kandiyohi County and the rest of the state are suffering.

Gov. Mark Dayton after a forum on avian flu.
Gov. Mark Dayton addressed the media after a public forum on avian flu in Willmar Saturday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

  "I think they're fearful," he said. "Those who have been infected are worried about whether they can get themselves back on their feet. Every day is another day where they don't have income and where they have expenses.  And it's just a very, very difficult situation.  So we'll do all we can to help them."  

One of the turkey producers who attended a public meeting with the governor and other officials was Jim Langmo of Willmar.  He and his brother started a turkey farm in the region more than 50 years ago.  

Langmo said he recently sold his ownership share of the business, but still works in the office every day. He said the farm sells about a million turkeys a year — but now it's been added to the list of poultry operations infected by avian influenza. 

Langmo says a barn caretaker gauged the progress of the disease by the number of dead turkeys he found.   

"That first morning he picked up 24, the next morning there were 450," Langmo said.  "And the next day there was in excess of a thousand."  

Discarded protective clothing
A bag full of discarded protective clothing sat near the entrance of a Worthington Poultry Company barn that was infected with avian flu. On Saturday, a delegation of legislators and health officials toured Willmar, Minn., to discuss the state's response to the avian flu outbreak.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Langmo said nearly all of the 15,000 turkeys in that barn died from the virus.  Thirty thousand other turkeys in nearby barns were killed as a preventive measure. 

He said farm managers haven't calculated the loss yet.  But Langmo said he thinks the business will survive, even as it suffers a lot of damage. Not only is there the loss of the birds, but the barns must be cleaned and disinfected before turkeys are restocked in the buildings.  

"We don't know for sure how soon we can get back into production,"  said Langmo. "So this could be a lot longer period of downtime than we realize. We've not faced this before."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses farmers for any poultry that are killed to prevent the spread of the disease. But any birds that die directly from the virus are the farmers' losses. 

The influenza virus is affecting more than just poultry production.  It's also worrying people who live in this major turkey-producing area of central Minnesota. They're concerned about the disease's economic impact, both for the region and for the farms hit by influenza. They're also waiting for answers on how the virus continues to move through the area, despite the best efforts of farmers to keep it out of their barns.  

"It's kind of scary that it's taking over the whole region,"  Else Cowley, of Litchfield, said. "I don't know what they can do about it.  What is the source?  Are they ever going to find the source?"  

Warmer weather should help slow the virus and eventually stop it. But so far, that hasn't happened.  The past week has seen the highest number of new infected flocks since avian influenza was confirmed in the state in early March.

Correction (April 27, 2015): Earlier versions of a photo caption appearing with this article gave incorrect information about the location of Bob Sonstegard's farm and the spelling of his name. The current version is correct.