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Tornadoes Smashed Alabama's Poultry Industry

A tornado-damaged poultry house in Blount County, Ala. State officials say 3 million chickens died in the storms.
Bradley George
A tornado-damaged poultry house in Blount County, Ala. State officials say 3 million chickens died in the storms.

Alabama was the hardest hit state in the devastating spate of tornadoes that crashed through the South last week. It had the most deaths, most damaged homes and the most destroyed businesses. One industry in particular suffered deep losses: poultry farming.

At his chicken farm in Blount County — about an hour north of Birmingham — owner Clay Scofield lost about 500 chickens when a tornado ripped the roof off one of his poultry houses.

"We took 6,000 chickens out of this house and divided it up in to the other three," he says. "The other three have some roof damage, but certainly not as bad as this one."

It's a surreal sight. The back half of the chicken house is fine, but the front part is destroyed. Feathers and manure are everywhere. Scofield, who's also an Alabama state senator, says some birds also died from stress after the storms.

He says his farm will survive. Others, though, may not be so lucky.

"You probably will see some farmers who've had total losses on their houses probably just collect insurance money and go to the house," he says. "And some folks, some of our older farmers, may just retire."

Poultry is big business in Alabama: $5 billion a year. Alabama is the third-largest poultry producer in the U.S, and the tornadoes damaged or destroyed at least 700 poultry houses. In total, state officials say 3 million chickens died.

Poultry Supply Chain Disrupted

State Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan says the storms have touched every part of Alabama's poultry business.

"It starts with the eggs and the chicks and goes all the way through the process," he says. "And that's all in the pipeline, and if you disrupt the flow of that pipeline, you've messed up the whole system."

Some grain mills have been without power, which means farmers can't get chicken feed. On top of that, a few processing plants are closed because of a lack of electricity, so there's no place to take chickens or eggs. McMillan is worried this breakdown in the supply chain could hurt other poultry farmers in the state, even those who didn't suffer any storm damage.

"If we don't get water and ventilation and feed to these poultry houses that were not affected at all by the storm, we're going to lose them, too," he says.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has already announced several programs to help farmers. Large chicken processors like Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride are also providing some assistance.

Experts don't expect consumers will see a price hike on chicken or eggs; while millions of Alabama chickens were killed by the storms, the state produces more than a billion each year.

Back in Blount County, farmer Dennis Maze says five of his chicken houses were harmed by a tornado last week — but the damage is repairable.

"I just had roof damage on these, took just a short time to get the roofs nailed back down," he says. "I'll have to come back to fix them once everything gets back down to a little normalcy."

Officials estimate it might be a year before Alabama's poultry industry gets back on its feet. And for a state with 9.2 percent unemployment and record budget shortfalls, that's a long wait.

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