Minnesota bans bird shows over avian flu worries

Architecture at the State Fair
The sheep-poultry barn at the Minnesota State Fair.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2010

Updated 5 p.m. | Posted 8:47 a.m.

The state Board of Animal Health on Friday canceled bird exhibitions for 2015 at the Minnesota State Fair, county fairs and other gatherings to minimize the risk of spreading avian flu.

Fairs cancel poultry exhibitions
Dr. Beth Thompson, assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, spoke about the state's decision to ban poultry exhibitions at county fairs and the State Fair this year. She was joined by State Fair general manager Jerry Hammer. Tim Nelson | MPR News.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

The decision ā€” which also covers swap meets, exotic animal sales and petting zoos ā€” comes in response to the spread of highly pathogenic H5N2 virus that has hit 88 farms in 21 Minnesota counties and killed millions of birds across the Midwest since March.

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"Taking this step makes sense," Dr. Beth Thompson, assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, said in statement. "We need to do everything possible to get rid of this virus and preventing the commingling of birds from different farms is one way to do that."

Representatives of poultry farmers, 4-H and the State Fair backed the move, although it means suspending a longtime Minnesota tradition.

Officials end poultry exhibitions in Minnesota
Brad Rugg, University of Minnesota Extension 4-H State Fair and Animal Science Director, talked about the impact of the state decision to end poultry exhibitions across the state this year. About 2,200 birds were expected to be shown at the State Fair. He was joined by Dr. Beth Thompson, the assistant director of the Minnesota Board of Animal Health (right) and State Fair General Manager Jerry Hammer (left). They announced the cancellation today at the State Fair grounds in Falcon Heights.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Many students and farmers show off their birds at the State Fair. About 2,200 birds were expected in the fair's poultry barns this summer.

"It's unfortunate," said Nolan Hohenstein, 19, a longtime 4-H chicken exhibitor from Lakefield, Minn. "It's just kind of devastating that I can't show poultry my last year in 4-H."

Hohenstein, an animal science major at South Dakota State University, said he was hoping for one more ribbon at the Jackson County Fair, but that poultry show has been canceled, too.

"Sometimes when you're in youth development, you realize that life isn't fair," said Brad Rugg, who runs the 4-H State Fair program for the University of Minnesota's extension service.

Poultry farming has been among the most popular and most accessible animal science programs offered by the extension service, he added.

"Sometimes all we can ever do is ask kids to do their very best," he said. "This year, that's going to translate to do their very best without being able to bring an animal into a show setting here at the State Fair or their county fair."

Organizers still hope to have some poultry activities at the State Fair, like an annual quiz bowl, a poultry prince and princess contest and poster contest for younger kids, he added.

State Fair officials said turkey drumsticks and sandwiches will be back as usual in August and the public shouldn't have to worry about exposure to the virus, particularly with the ban on live birds.

The risk that the strain will spread to the general public remains very low.

There may even be a lesson learned in all this for would-be farmers, said Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association.

"There is an opportunity for them to learn more about this," he said. "This is part of what it takes to raise food. There are some risks to that."

MPR News reporter Jon Collins contributed to this story.