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The Farmer whose Business Survived Bird Flu

by 5m Editor
15 December 2008, at 7:00am

CHINA - The first farmer to be hit by highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in 2004 has now become a successful poultry farmer again.

Nearly five years ago, Huang Shengde was hiding from reporters and even in fear for his life. Today he is a very successful local chicken farmer with a lot to crow about.

His Dingdang chicken brand is now sold in the markets of Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in Southwest China. It is also sold in Hong Kong and Macao too.

The report's author remembers talking to Huang on his duck farm in Dingdang Town during the 2004 crisis. They both wore white coats and masks for fear of contracting bird flu, which killed 200 of Huang's ducks.

It was confirmed to be the first case of H5N1 sub-type of avian influenza on the mainland.

A gravel path zigzags through patches of sugar cane and orange trees to Huang's home. Back in 2004, it was coated with white lime for decontamination purposes. Today, grass and bushes grow lavishly near the ponds, which were once swarming with ducks.

Now the grounds are a playground for his chickens, which are fenced inside the 0.4-hectare farm.

Mr Huang, a stout man in his mid-30s, walks with brisk steps, and arouses his 10,000 chickens into a cackling chorus. He asks me to dip my shoes into a shallow basin of liquid disinfectant before entering his farm.

"Were it not for bird flu, I would never have dreamed of making business out of it," Mr Huang says, beaming with a broad smile.

He is a changed man: in 2004, he locked himself in a deserted primary school refusing to meet busloads of journalists who flocked to interview him following the bird flu outbreak.

"I dreaded so much of contracting bird flu, and I was equally afraid of facing the media," he says.

Today, Mr Huang is a spokesperson of Dingdang town, and even speaks on behalf of Longan, a county with 380,000 residents.

Back in 2004, Hui Liangyu, then China's vice-premier, came to Huang's town in the wake of the infection and encouraged local authorities to "help farmers to their feet from where they fell".

The Longan county authorities acted swiftly. Gan Qiangzhong, then deputy magistrate, decided to modernize and develop a poultry industry out of the ruins.

"It had been a long tradition for farmers to raise fowls in their courtyard, without regular quarantine and disinfection," Mr Gan says.

"This meant they could not make decent money out of it, and it also increased the possibility of spreading disease."

The Fengxiang Poultry Co became a pioneer in Guangxi's poultry industry by investing 20 million yuan ($2.2 million) to build a breeding farm capable of supplying 18 million chicks a year to farmers.

With scepticism, Mr Huang went to see the farm and attended the company's promotion sessions many times until he was convinced.

The company had no record of bird flu since it was founded in 1985 and provided veterinary services, such as drugs, monitoring technology and chicken feed. It also promised to purchase chickens at a preset prices, even when the market prices fluctuated.

Mr Huang's farm was the first in the Dingdang town to meet the parameters set by the company: it was far from the residential community, it had good ventilation, an adequate supply of clean water and also had fruit trees.

In July 2004, Mr Huang became the first local partner of the Fengxiang company to raise chickens.

With a loan of 8,000 yuan and a subsidy of 2,000 yuan from local government, Huang built chicken pens for 5,000 chicks. To the envy of his peers, the farmer pocketed 4,000 yuan in the first deal.

The local annual per capita income is 2,500 yuan.

"A chick grows up in 120 days, so you may raise about three rounds a year," he says. "On average, I can earn 20,000 yuan in profit a year."

Twice a day, Mr Huang and his wife feed chicks and chickens, which also scratch around for insects beneath fruit trees. The couple also administers medicine to the chicks to warn off disease.

The Huangs' orange orchard has also become more profitable. They no longer need to buy tons of manure to fertilize the trees thanks to the steady source of chicken manure. Mr Huang even sells manure to banana growers.

Occasionally, a few chickens die of bowel disease or from sudden temperature changes, and Mr Huang reports the deaths to the Fengxiang company, which sends workers for checkups. But bird flu has never again hit his farm, he says.

However, there are other things to guard against, particularly wild eagles and snakes. Mr Huang has scared away 30 snakes.

Further Reading

- You can visit the Avian Flu page by clicking here.