Farm faces ruin to save industry

Some of the farms young breeders before they were culled.

The owner of a Joostenbergvlakte duck farm is counting the cost of a bird flu outbreak that forced him to retrench all 96 of his workers and cull almost 30 000 ducks.

The Duck Farm owner, Leon Groenewald, said his business was ruined. “I put everything in this business, all my investments, everything,” he told the Northern News.

The mass culling to stop the spread of the disease was like cutting your leg to save yourself, he said.

“If someone has gout in the knee and they need to cut off the leg or lose the whole body, they’ll cut of the leg to save the person.”

The culling by the provincial Department of Agriculture was necessary to stop the bird flu reaching other farms and devastating the Western Cape’s poultry industry, but “cutting off a leg” for the industry is equivalent to losing the whole body for the Groenewald family.

The duck farm has been in Joostenbergvlakte for more than 50 years. The Groenewalds bought the business in 2009. They were the fourth owners. Some of the 96 employees who lost their jobs had been working on the farm long before the Groenewalds bought it.

The farm is Mr Groenewald’s third career. Originally from Pretoria, he first worked as a consultant civil engineer before moving into the finance field. He owned his own financial planning practice for 20 years before cashing in all his investments and moving to Cape Town to buy the farm.

The farm, which curiously is situated on a patch of roads which are all named after birds, employed dozens of people from the surrounding suburbs and provided meat to niche shops, restaurants and retailers. In 2012, they expanded and started selling live birds to nearby wine farms that used ducks to keep the snail populations under control.

The farm had no serious outbreaks in its 50 years of existence and it had prevention measures to keep wild birds that spread avian flu out of the duck runs. However, a few weeks ago, ducks started getting sick and dying. Egg production also dropped from 12 000 a day to 234 a day.

“We called the Department of Agriculture immediately,” Mr Groenewald said. “They tested and confirmed that it was bird flu.”

The infection had been caught from wild birds, he said.

“The department had tested wild birds and found the virus in guinea fowl, blue crane and others.”

My Groenewald’s ducks were slaughtered and the incubating eggs destroyed. The remains were buried between layers of manure for composting. The carcasses of more than 10 000 ducks that died from the virus, 29 000 that were culled – including 4 000 breeders – and the 28 000 eggs are now all lying in this manure grave.

Most of the ducks that were culled were not sick, Mr Groenewald said, but they still carried the infection. Ducks can still be infectious long after they have recovered from the disease.

The quarantine and culling is costing the Groenewald’s millions and has destroyed any hopes of breeding ducks on the farm again, but Mr Groenewald said: “We’re not taking it lying down.”

Despite insurance companies not covering these kinds of outbreaks, Mr Groenewald is looking at getting compensation from the government and hopes to pick up the abattoir section of the business again – once the several-week-long quarantine is over. He plans on buying ducks from other farms for slaughtering so that he can re-employ some of his workers.

“All of our staff had to go,” he said, adding that the business was a big family. “I want to give my staff work again.”

The provincial Department of Economic Opportunities, which is responsible for the departments of Agriculture and Economic Development and Tourism, said the virus had affected mostly ostriches in the province and had been detected in several wild bird species, including rock pigeons, doves and geese.

There has been 17 confirmed cases of bird flu at farms or among wild bird flocks and 46 ostrich farms had been quarantined because of their proximity to these cases. Some 200 000 chickens had either died or been culled at two affected chicken farms and the Groenewald’s farm was the only duck farm affected.

MEC Alan Winde said: “One of my biggest concerns is the impact of this outbreak on the economy… We are aware of one major poultry company which employs over 2 000 people. There are an estimated 29 million birds in the commercial poultry sector in the Western Cape, and approximately 185 000 backyard chickens.

“The ostrich sector provides around 15 000 direct jobs and indirectly 100 000 people depend on this sector for their livelihoods. Our economists have started mapping the Western Cape’s avian economy

“We know the decreased supply of poultry products in the market will also put pressure on food prices; a further strain on households.”

State vets were liaising with the Department of Social Development to make social workers available to support affected workers, he said.

Mr Winde said it was up to the national Department of Agriculture to determine whether farms qualified for compensation.

There had been no reported cases of people falling ill after being in contact with infected birds, but Mr Winde advised those who had been in contact with infected birds to “take precautions”.