It’s been tough in the poultry sector for the past several years, but resiliency in the industry has proven key to survival, according to Jeannette Kreher Heberling and Jamey Payne, representing Kreher Family Farms in Clarence, NY, at this year’s New York State Agricultural Society Forum. The farm has 2.2 million chickens and cultivates 5,000 acres.

Heberling shared a family saying – “Nothing is as constant as change” – which rings especially true lately. In 2015, avian flu decimated commercial flocks, taking 43 million chickens out of production. Over the next two years, the market fallout devastated producers. In 2019, a rebounding industry overproduced, driving prices down. When the pandemic hit, the struggles included the supply chain issues ubiquitous to farming.

The 2022 avian flu event has proven even more devastating than the one in 2015 as it has spread to even backyard coops.

“We are a tough bunch,” Heberling said. They’re also a resourceful bunch.

Kreher Farms has undertaken initiatives to protect their flock, like ramping up biosecurity protocols such as more cleaning, limiting movement between farms, eliminating non-essential visitors and requiring drivers to stay in their trucks. This has helped them bounce back faster during the current avian flu outbreak.

The more recent flu seems to stem from fly-over activity since even hobbyist chicken coops have been affected, unlike in 2015. Tracking the outbreaks also indicates that waterfowl migratory routes correlate with the worst areas of outbreaks. The farm is reducing fly-over by using devices to divert migratory birds.

Kreher Farms has also set a goal of becoming cage-free by 2025. This can help reduce disease but also appeals to consumers who look for this feature on packages at the grocery store.

Customer preference contributed to weak sales in 2016 and 2017 as egg alternatives spiked in popularity; however, marketing the merits of real eggs has helped.

Diversifying is also improving Kreher Farms’ ability to weather volatility in the market. By leveraging a byproduct of production, the company has become a notable producer of organic crops and fertilizer.

The farm has expanded distribution in recent years too. “You can find our eggs from Maine to Florida,” Heberling said.

She encouraged farmers to invest in their people, technology and the process to increase efficiency. It’s also important to hold onto new methods that work well.

Farmers show resiliency during crises

Jamey Payne shared the recent challenges at Kreher Family Farms with the attendees of the New York State Ag Society Forum. Photo by Deborah J. Sergeant

“We learn, adjust and move forward,” Payne said. “Everything we had in place, we kept in place from a processing and biosecurity standpoint” from 2015 to the present time.

Kreher Farms has also learned about how to respond during other kinds of acute emergencies. The pandemic hit just as the egg industry typically enjoys its best-selling season, as those celebrating Easter stock up on eggs. The farm offered eggs to all its neighbors.

Knowing your neighbors is important. When a blizzard struck Western New York just before Christmas, 50 workers were stranded among six of the Kreher Farms. Local businesses provided food to them as they waited out the storm.

“Storms” of all kinds affect the ag industry, both literal and figurative. In a surprise appearance at the forum, Gov. Kathy Hochul gave a brief speech reflecting on the challenges and opportunities of today’s farmers. She praised the farmers for their tenacity in continuing on in the industry despite bad crops and poor prices, calling them “the greatest optimists in our state because you always say, ‘We’ll come back next year.’”

She touched on increasing the farm workforce retention credit as a means of increasing the labor pool in agriculture.

“I know there’s a lot of anxiety around the overtime wage,” Hochul said. “I get that to my core. I get that. But I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, the State of New York is going to pick up the cost of extra overtime you’re paying.’” She did not specify the source of the revenue to cover these costs.

Hochul wants famers to invest tax credits in new technology to give their farms an advantage.

Increasing institutional purchases of New York farm goods represents another way in which Hochul anticipates promoting the state’s agriculture.

“We run schools and prisons and assisted living homes,” she said. “Why aren’t they all purchasing New York’s products? We are going to set a goal of insisting that our institutions and agencies, when they’re out there purchasing, at least 30% must be grown in the State of New York to give you better access to those markets that should have been there all along.”

She called agriculture’s excessive regulations “crushing” and said that she is forming the Strategic Interagency Task Force Lessening Obstacles to Agriculture Working Group to identify areas needing improvement.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant