Company's bankruptcy starves chickens at abandoned egg farm
By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
TRILBY -- Over and over on Wednesday, a yellow front-end loader dug into a pile of white feathers, scooped up countless carcasses and chugged off to a burial pit at a failed egg farm where as many as 20,000 birds starved over the past two weeks.
The scene could go on for days, a state Department of Agriculture official said Wednesday. When the dead birds are removed, contractors will be hired to euthanize the farm's remaining 180,000 birds, which are virtually worthless to other farmers, officials said.
In all, about 200,000 chickens will likely be destroyed in the wake of egg producer Cypress Foods' bankruptcy.
The 80-acre egg farm located between U.S. 98 and U.S. 301 north of Trilby Road was deserted about two weeks ago after Winter Haven-based Cypress Foods filed for bankruptcy in January, according to investigators and the Florida Poultry Federation.
Dr. Lee Coffman, state veterinarian and director of the Department of Agriculture's Division of Animal Industry, said it's unlikely the state will file charges against anyone because the case is so tangled in court.
"The problem here, especially when you have a receivership, is how do you sort it out? How can you get into a court of law and determine who was responsible?" Coffman said.
Coffman said an accurate count is difficult, but at least 10,000 chickens already are dead, and that could be half the true number. Pasco County Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers said county agricultural deputies also are investigating, but it's a mess that could take a long time to unravel.
Coffman's department and the Poultry Federation began feeding the starving chickens on Tuesday, but Coffman and others said birds would be destroyed.
Coffman said the birds, 15 months old, are near the end of their egg-laying prime, so no other farmers would want them. Even at their peak, the birds sell for about $1.50 each or less, he said.
Attorneys for the court-appointed trustee, Lakeland accountant Andrea Bauman, said she was handed control of the farm late Thursday and immediately began investigating. When Bauman learned the chickens had not been fed, she and her team contacted state officials and began trying to secure enough food for 200,000 birds, attorney Chad Bowen said.
Another of Bauman's attorneys, David Jennis, said Bauman apparently was given control when bankruptcy court learned the chickens had not been fed. It was her first priority to get food to the birds, Jennis said.
James Biggers, chairman of Cypress Foods and responsible for the company until Bauman took charge, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. The phone went unanswered at Cypress Foods headquarters, and a message left on a machine at the Trilby plant was not returned.
But Pasco County egg farmer Wilton Simpson, whose family sold the Trilby operation to Biggers in 1996, said Biggers is a decent man who got caught in an industrywide crunch.
Florida Poultry Federation Executive Vice President Chuck Smith concurred.
The industry has suffered through a huge slump in the past year. The price of eggs has plummeting as Midwestern farms with 5-million to 10-million chickens produced eggs faster than consumers could buy them, Smith said.
The Trilby operation is minuscule compared with the Midwestern giants, Simpson said. It's small even compared with the industry standard of 800,000 to 1-million chickens, he said.
Smith said many farmers have weathered the depressed market through contracts with supermarkets and other outlets. The price per egg might drop, he said, but at least there's a buyer. Cypress Foods did not have a contract and sold its eggs on the open market to any bidders it could find. In the end, the company was selling eggs for less than it cost to produce them, Smith said.
Gael Murphy, educational coordinator for the nonprofit Florida Voices For Animals, said consumers need to know how farm animals are treated. She condemned the abandonment of thousands of live animals and said the strongest way consumers can take action is to go vegetarian.
"It's chicken feed. Just by saying it, you know it's not worth much," Murphy said. "But they would rather starve these chickens than feed them."
She said investigators should use felony animal cruelty laws already on the books to prosecute the responsible parties in the Trilby case.
"These chickens were packed into cages, in the dark, watching the others die all around them," Murphy said. "They knew what was going on."
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