I raise what the Minnesota Department of Agriculture refers to as a “back-yard flock” of free-range laying hens, whose eggs I market at our local food co-op. The demand for my farm-fresh eggs has grown since I started selling them last summer, so I am expanding my flock to accommodate that market.

Our small farm is within 3 miles of a turkey confinement facility, and I’ve been on pins and needles since I heard about the H5N2 avian influenza outbreaks and 6-mile “control area” for all poultry flocks in adjoining counties (not just turkeys — though they are most susceptible). What if my birds get sick? What if there’s an outbreak down the road?

From what I understand, if a flock gets infected, it gets slaughtered. Being in the control area near an outbreak means testing of the birds and a quarantine on them and their products for at least a couple of weeks.

U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations on biosecurity precautions for cage-free poultry include “identifying high risk areas that include wetlands along migratory flyways or other areas where wild waterfowl or shorebirds congregate” and “implementing preventive measures for these high-risk areas [including] keeping birds indoors or restricting outside open access by maintaining outdoor enclosures covered with solid roofs and wire mesh or netted sides.”

We live in the Mississippi Flyway, in the prairie pothole biome, which is one of the biggest waterfowl migration and production areas in the country. According to the recommendations, poultry in our area should simply not be allowed access to the outdoors — or if they are, they should be fully enclosed — basically, confined.

Except that the worst outbreaks of this disease in our region have not been in free-range poultry; they’ve been in large-scale confined flocks that have implemented the recommended protective measures. Three big turkey barns in Stearns County have tested positive, but so far none of the approximately 80 back-yard flocks in the control area has shown signs of infection. Thirteen back-yard flocks in the Lac qui Parle County control area were tested and found disease-free. The 30 back-yard flocks tested in Pope County were released from quarantine, as well.

The Star Tribune recently closed an article about the latest outbreaks in Kandiyohi and Stearns counties with this quote:

“Curiously, back-yard turkey flocks in Minnesota haven’t been hit hard by the disease so far. ‘They are at greater risk,’ a puzzled [DNR wildlife health supervisor Michelle] Carstensen said. Unlike commercial birds, they don’t spend their whole lives in barns and are more exposed to wild bird droppings.”

With my fingers crossed for the health of my — and my neighbors’ — flocks, I want to suggest that non-confined birds are in a better position to avoid or overcome illness because, unlike commercial birds, they don’t spend their whole lives in barns. They have shelter, but they also get outside, they get fresh air and exercise, and they get exposed to microbes that help them develop a healthy immune system. They are not crammed into a disinfected space with several thousand birds of the same breed, waiting for a pathogen to get tracked through biosecurity and wipe them all out.

Instead of racing to plug gaps in the existing system, maybe it’s time to question the system itself. Raising thousands of birds (or cows, or hogs) in a confined space may be considered “efficient,” but it results in a high-stress environment that sets out the welcome mat for disease, as well as concentrating waste in a way that pollutes rather than enriches.

Meanwhile, the market for free-range and heritage-breed poultry products continues to grow, as consumers turn away from birds mass-produced in a building alongside 20,000 or more of their closest friends. What if, instead of being the state that produces the most turkeys, we became the state that produced the best turkeys?

What if, instead of cramming more turkeys into bigger barns, we tried having more farmers on the land to raise them?


Rebecca White farms near Ortonville, Minn.