Flu-Free Chicken, Fingers Crossed for Cooks


Flu-Free Chicken, Fingers Crossed for Cooks
Cooks Venture grows heirloom birds like this one at the former Peterson Farms grounds in Decatur. The threat of avian flu means cooping up the free-ranging birds through mid-July.

The free-ranging super birds of Decatur (Benton County) haven’t suffered a single case of avian flu, but they’ve had their wings clipped, metaphorically.

“Regarding avian influenza, nothing, knock on wood,” CEO Matthew Wadiak of Cooks Venture said. A current strain of the bird flu has been spreading in U.S. poultry flocks this year, leading to the destruction of more than 13 million chickens and turkeys in eight states.

But Wadiak, a co-founder of the Blue Apron meal service who turned to sustainability in founding Cooks Venture, admitted there are concerns. “Our geography is on the very edge of a flyway, but so far we are OK. I’m hoping it warms up fast and doesn’t continue to spread regionally.”

Even though no cases have been seen in the state so far, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture imposed a statewide avian flu emergency last week after an outbreak in Nebraska. It will run through mid-July. Along with restrictions on moving and exhibiting live flocks, emergency rules require free-range and backyard poultry to be kept under a roof or inside a structure. The idea is to prevent them from interacting with infected migratory birds or coming into contact with their droppings.

Cooks Venture, which bills itself as a next-generation agriculture company, raises heirloom poultry on the old Peterson Farms site in Decatur, where Lloyd Peterson developed his famous breeds generations ago. The company processes tens of thousands of birds a week, shipping them to its production facility in Jay, Oklahoma, about 25 miles northwest of Decatur.

And while the birds usually have basically the run of the farm, they will be under a closer eye during the emergency.

Otherwise, business has been good, said Wadiak, who visits Arkansas frequently but is based in New York. “Business is good and we are growing,” the CEO said. “Fuel and feed are more expensive, but again, nothing unique to us.”