WASHINGTON – Minnesotans applauded U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after he advocated for an insurance program for farmers affected by avian influenza.

Vilsack called for Congress to include funding for such a program during a congressional oversight committee meeting Wednesday. He said he thinks such a program was left off the latest farm bill for budgetary reasons.

"I would strongly urge the Congress as it begins the process of considering future farm bills, to look for a way in which that issue could be addressed," Vilsack said.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said in a news release that he was pleased to hear that Vilsack was calling for an insurance program and noted that he and the rest of the Minnesota congressional delegation have urged Vilsack to expedite a study of the feasibility of the insurance program.

"When wild bird migrations resume in the fall, there is a very real possibility that avian flu will return, and we need to make sure that producers are able to manage that risk," Franken wrote. "Right now as a grower you can insure your barn against all kinds of damage, but the birds inside, at risk of avian flu and other disease outbreaks-well, there's nowhere to turn for that. Our poultry industry is so critical to rural communities in Minnesota, and we need to make sure it can continue to thrive."

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According to the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, more than 9 million birds-mostly turkeys-from more than 100 farms have been affected by the avian influenza outbreak in the state.

Steve Olson, executive director of the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association, said Minnesota farmers would likely take a long look at any insurance program introduced by Congress.

"I think what they envision is something similar to crop insurance," he said on Thursday. "We're definitely interested in it, but it all depends on the premium costs. If they're too expensive, it wouldn't make sense for farmers to use it. It would have been useful this year, though."

Another option being considered to combat avian influenza is a vaccine. An earlier version of the vaccine was effective in only 60 percent of birds, but Vilsack said Wednesday a newer version has tested 100 percent effective in chickens, and is currently undergoing testing on turkeys.

USDA officials also have said that some countries may balk at importing U.S. poultry products until they could do their own assessment of the vaccine.

Olson said it's likely too late in the year to inoculate turkeys in Minnesota before wild birds begin migrating south for the winter, but it is important for the USDA and vaccine producers to begin stockpiling the vaccine for future use.

"What we'd like to see at the very least is to see that stockpiled, so we can have that tool to use in the toolbox if need be," Olson said.