Local News

Mystery Illness Threatens State's $582 Million Turkey Industry

Posted April 2, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— For years, North Carolina has been the country's top turkey-producing state. Nearly 900 farmers have made it a $582 million industry. But that situation is directly threatened by a mysterious disease that attacks the turkeys' immune system. Last year its inroads cost the business $55 million, and some farmers say they cannot hang on.

The disease poses no risk for humans, but the sick birds are not marketed. They eat, but don't gain weight. Grocery shoppers traditionally look for plump birds; puny turkeys would be easy to spot. So they don't make it to supermarket meat cases.

Turkey farmers usually raise the birds under contract to a large company. WLR Foods of Broadway, Va., is such a company. It is second in size in the U.S., and has just informed farmers it will not restock those farms hit hardest by the disease.

Forty-two farms in North Carolina, and three in South Carolina, have been forced to shut down because of WLR's position. A company spokesman said, "We want to do everything we can to help (farmers) through it." The company is conducting private research and has contributed $2 million to find a cure. None is in sight.

Dr. Donna Carver, a veterinarian specializing in poultry at North Carolina State University, says the disease has the potential to close a lot more turkey operations.

The disease has occurred on both established and new turkey farms. Researchers believe it is infectious, but haven't isolated a carrier. Its spread may be accelerated by concentrations of farms in proximity.

Wayne Willis, with Tarheel Turkey Hatcheries in Raeford, said the disease is "definitely a serious threat, primarily in the Southeast."

At a Monday meeting in Charlotte attended by about 75 farmers, the unsavory options discussed included loan restructuring and bankruptcy.

Leonard Deese said he borrowed $250,000 11 years ago to get into the turkey business. On Monday, he started work at a job off the farm, he said.

"I can't afford to lose the money that I lose every year any more," said Deese, who raised turkeys for Circle S Ranch, a Union County contractor.