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Mystery Illness Threatens State's $582 Million Turkey Industry

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CHARLOTTE — For years, North Carolina has been thecountry's top turkey-producing state. Nearly 900 farmers have made it a$582 million industry. But that situation is directly threatened by amysterious disease that attacks the turkeys' immune system. Last year itsinroads cost the business $55 million, and some farmers say they cannothang on.

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

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

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

Dr. Donna Carver, a veterinarian specializing in poultry at NorthCarolina State University, says the disease has the potential to close alot 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. Itsspread may be accelerated by concentrations of farms in proximity.

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

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

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

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