The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) said it will compensate White Oak Pastures, the nation’s largest pastured-poultry operation and Georgia’s largest certified-organic farm, for losing tens of thousands of chickens to bald eagle attacks.
In the last several years, Will Harris, owner of Bluffton, Ga.-based White Oak Pastures, a fifth-generation, 3,200-acre ranch, which is also the state’s largest grass-fed beef operation, instituted a Serengeti Plains rotational grazing model, which rotates complimentary animal species side-by-side to graze and fertilize pastures. The cows graze the grass, the sheep and goats prefer the weeds, and the poultry species peck at the roots, bugs and grubs, and all of them naturally fertilize the land.
White Oak Pastures is also an accredited hub of the Savory Institute, implementing holistic farm and ranch management programs such as carbon sequestration in an effort to mitigate the impact of climate change.
Harris had introduced pasture-raised, organic poultry to its production model in 2010. Within two years, about 100,000 chickens, turkeys, guinea hens, and ducks roamed the farm’s open pastures. Not too long after, the chickens caught the attention of federally protected bald eagles.
By the fall of 2015, nearly 80 bald eagles were roosting in the trees on the ranch, carrying off or killing hundreds of chickens per day. In total, about 30 percent of the farm’s organic chickens were destroyed.
After numerous, unsuccessful efforts to divert the bald eagles from the poultry areas – from noise machines to tarps (depicted in a 2017 New York Times article), White Oak Pastures approached the USDA’s Farm Service Administration (FSA) and applied for benefits under the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP).
Between April 2015 and November 2015, White Oak Pastures estimated in its applications for benefits that it lost more than 83,000 chickens to eagle predation, resulting in financial losses that exceeded $1.4 million ($638,629 in 2015 and $775,900 in 2016).
After the FSA denied White Oak’s LIP claims, saying the company failed to prove its livestock losses occurred as a direct result of avian attacks, despite intensive documentation, confirmation from biologists, and video and photographic evidence to the contrary, White Oak Pastures appealed to the FSA’s National Appeals Division (NAD).
In its Aug. 20 determination ruling, NAD said the FSA erred in its decision to deny White Oak LIP benefits and said FSA should reexamine the record and issue a new decision on the company’s applications for benefits for 2015 and 2016.
Harris told Sustainable Food News that the company is sending the FSA a demand letter for the two years. Harris said there is a payment limitation of $125,000 per farm per year but that the company is also "entitled to recovery of our legal costs. These are considerable."
Harris said he is also sending the FSA a request that they approve claims for 2017 and 2018, which brings the total loss to $2.2 million based on the destruction of 160,000 chickens from bald eagle predation.
“We are extremely grateful that the National Appeals Division ruled in our favor and recognized our right to fair compensation for our losses,” said Harris in a statement. “We are proud to be a working farm, committed to doing what is right for the land and our animals, and appreciate the recognition that the FSA acted improperly when it denied our claims.”
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