After battles, is ag prepared?

If getting hit time after time can make them tougher, farmers and ranchers in the West should be in good training for a big fight with whatever plant or animal disease comes next.

U.S. beef cattle producers and processors are battling over regulatory and marketing policies in the fourth month after a single cow in Washington state tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy. State and federal plant health officials from across the West are wrestling with regulations and quarantines tied to sudden oak death. Only months ago, California concluded its battle against exotic Newcastle disease in poultry.

These are just a few of the rounds agriculture has survived in recent months. The battles keep coming, even as producers and regulators develop more precautions for the good of agriculture, and to protect consumers and national security.

Still, the question persists: How well prepared are producers, agricultural industries and federal agencies to deal with the challenges? A look across the border into Canada can help put a new perspective on the question. In the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, just north of Washington state, the discovery of avian influenza will cut out a huge part of a vibrant poultry industry.

Less than two months ago, Canadian officials reported that low-pathogen avian influenza had showed up in the valley. Within weeks, high-pathogen bird flu hit, and the concern quickly grew to major alarm. Despite the industry's efforts and officials' precautions, the disease spread fast.

Canadian federal officials announced last week that in the next few months, up to 19 million birds from about 600 farms in the Fraser Valley will be cleared out in the fight against bird flu. Birds from flocks that test negative for the disease can go into markets, under a label that indirectly tells merchants the meat is to go only to domestic markets rather than to export customers.

Those 19 million birds represent 80 percent of the British Columbia poultry industry, which accounts for about 12 percent of all Canadian poultry.

Producers take the flock cuts as bitter medicine, judging from Canadian press reports. They must get the disease stopped, but they likely will take a financial beating in the process; some could go out of business. The Canadian government has committed to get the birds tested and slaughtered, but it hasn't committed to payments for producers whose flocks are found to be infected.

The province's poultry farms may be out of business for about half a year. Their suppliers and their buyers will lose business with them, and employers will worry about keeping workers.

The U.S. battles have been on a different scale. BSE directly affected only one cow in the U.S., even though the market fallout has been wide and the reverberations continue. SOD has hit some nurseries hard, but in most cases inspected material can move from suppliers to buyers. Southern California's exotic Newcastle disease wiped more than 3 million birds from commercial egg production and backyard flocks. It hurt some producers, but the great bulk of California's layer industry escaped damage and the loss of layers barely showed as a blip on national egg markets.

Multiply any one of those U.S. examples to the relative scale of the Fraser Valley bird flu case.

Then consider the question again: How well prepared are producers, agricultural industries and federal agencies to deal with the challenges?

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This editorial first appeared in the Capital Press.

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