Owners of backyard chickens have had their feathers ruffled by a new state mandate.
A recent requirement from the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services will require all chicken keepers to register with the state, regardless of the size of their flock. The requirement is being met with accusations of “fowl play” from some chickeners who say the registry is part of a larger effort to subvert agricultural autonomy and prop up a regulatory system that favors Big Ag.
In July, Gov. Pat McCrory greenlighted recommendations from state veterinarian Dr. Doug Meckes to implement statewide emergency measures to prevent and control the spread of avian influenza. The virus causes catastrophic illness and death within affected poultry, overcoming the birds within hours or days. An outbreak of bird flu swept through 21 states earlier this year, resulting in the loss of around 50 million birds, and is considered to be the worst animal virus outbreak in U.S. history.
Though there are no known cases of human infection from bird flu, the virus does stand to have a devastating effect on North Carolina. The state’s poultry industry includes some 4,200 poultry farms and an additional 4,000 backyard chicken flocks, spawns approximately 100,000 jobs and has a collective economic impact of close to $18 billion. Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project also reports that 41 percent of cash agricultural purchases in the region in 2007 came directly from the sale of poultry and eggs.
Though no new outbreaks of the virus have been reported since mid-June, the NCDA&CS notes that the state, which is positioned along the migratory path for birds that will soon be returning South for the winter, is under imminent threat of an outbreak.
Meckes’ measures to prevent that outbreak include banning organized gatherings of avian species, such as agriculture shows and fairs, outbreak management plans for commercial facilities housing more than 200 poultry, and requiring every owner of poultry to register with NCDA&CS — even backyard chicken keepers with one or two birds.
“The requirement for poultry owners to register their flocks is so that the N.C. Department of Agriculture can communicate with both large and small poultry owners,” says Ethan Henderson, a cooperative extension agent specializing in livestock. “This will enable NCDA to contact poultry owners to keep them informed about how to prevent infection in their flocks and to keep owners updated as the fall migration season approaches.”
While there is no fee to register birds under the mandate, that hasn’t kept the new requirement from upsetting several bird keepers. As word of the registration mandate spread, a popular Facebook Group, Asheville City Chickens, closed off its group to the public and began restricting new memberships. While some members acknowledged that registration would aid in responding to an outbreak, several of the group’s members posted concerns over government overreach that they say would ultimately wipe out small-scale chicken keeping in the state.
Another recently formed Facebook group, NO to NC Chicken Registration, has become home to a sort of poultry registration resistance, proclaiming in its group description, “Who controls the food supply, controls the people.” Speculation over a hidden rationale behind the issuance runs rampant throughout the group’s discussion thread. Theories include the registration serving as permission for further inspection of registered farms; a desire by the state to lend further support to corporate agriculture by identifying and eliminating small chicken flocks; and the potential issuance of penalties resulting from non-compliance with the mandates of the memorandum. Others raised concerns that the vague language of the mandate, which grants the governor the authority to develope and implement “any and all emergency measures and procedures that are necessary to prevent and control this disease,” could lead to further restrictions or the extermination of healthy birds.
David Williams, an attorney volunteering with the No to NC Chicken Registration group, has also questioned the legality of the registration mandate, citing the rulemaking process outlined in the N.C. General Statute, and criticized the lack of transparency and public notice in its introduction.
Meckes responded to public concern in late July with a letter titled “Why should I register my flock?” In the letter, Meckes asserts that flock data will be kept confidential and calls for voluntary compliance, explaining that the purpose of the rule is to allow for two-way communication between birdkeepers and the government. At this time, there have been no discussions of penalties for noncompliance.
It’s important to note that not everyone is upset about the regulations. Transylvania County homesteader Jess Woodall, who is preparing to start her own backyard flock with her husband, was more tempered in her reaction to the registry. “We’re not looking to get many chickens, just enough to supply eggs for ourselves,” Woodall says. “If they required us to register, I wouldn’t let that stop us from getting chickens. If it’s truly about protection, I can see why they would want to implement those requirements.”
Local business owners, including Cande Honeycutt-Killian of Owl Meadow Farm also spoke out in support of the mandate. “It is the government’s responsibility to have a plan of action when a threat of this magnitude presents itself,” Honeycutt-Killian says. “I have found our work with the [agriculture] department has been an asset and has provided a wealth of information.”
Editor’s note: Josh O’Conner is a member of the Asheville City Chickens group, but does not represent the group’s current leadership.