20,000 quail die in fire at game bird farm
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | March 14,2013
Len Emery Photo
Owner Rick Thompson stands next to the charred remains of one of three poultry houses at the Cavendish Game Farm on Woodbury Road in Springfield. A fire destroyed the barn Wednesday, killing thousands of quail and 30 pigs.
SPRINGFIELD — More than 20,000 quail died Wednesday morning in a fire at Cavendish Game Birds of Vermont, putting the gourmet food business temporarily out of business.
The quail, which represented about half of the birds at the Woodbury Road farm, were the farm’s breeding stock, said owner Rick Thompson.
The farm sells its specially bred jumbo Coturnix quail to high-end restaurants as far away as Chicago and Las Vegas. The farm is the largest producer of jumbo Coturnix quail in New England, processing between 6,000 to 8,000 birds a week.
Springfield Fire Chief Russell Thompson, who is not related to the farm owners, said the cause of the fire was unknown.
He said when the first firefighting crew got there shortly before 6 a.m., it encountered heavy fire.
He said firefighting efforts were complicated by the presence of a 1,000-gallon LP gas tank, and a wooden silo that was threatening to collapse on top of it. He said 30 firefighters from about a dozen departments helped fight the fire.
The quail breeding stock were housed in a converted dairy barn, said Rick Thompson.
Thompson discovered the blaze around 5:30 a.m., when he got up and heard the alarm at the farm’s hatchery, indicating a loss of electricity at the farm’s incubators, which was in a separate building.
Thompson said he rushed to try and save the farm’s 30 Berkshire pigs, which included about seven adults and two recent litters of piglets.
But he said when he opened the door there were no usual animal sounds — a sign, Thompson said, that the animals had already succumbed to smoke inhalation.
“There wasn’t a peep from them,” he said.
The air from the open door just fanned the flames, making any attempt to save the breeding stock impossible.
The heat from the fire was so intense it warped the glass in the nearby nursery building, and there were no signs of the delicate quail in the rubble of the old barn.
“The only part of the barn that survived was the milk house,” Rick Thompson said Wednesday morning as a steady stream of family, friends and employees came to comfort and help.
Rick Thompson said it would probably be a couple of months before they would be completely back in business, because they had to rebuild the barn and restock.
The barn that burned was 30 by 150 feet, including a large addition that had been built in 2008. The barn itself was probably built in the 1940s or ’50s, Thompson said, and was largely made of cinder block.
The breeding stock produced thousands of eggs a week, with some sold and most being placed in incubators to be hatched. He said the farm hatched 8,000 eggs a week, and there were currently 36,000 quail still growing in a different barn. The birds take six weeks to grow before slaughter.
A generator was keeping the incubators humming despite the fire.
“Our future breeders are in the incubators,” he said.
Thompson and his brother Bill own and run the family-oriented business, which moved to Springfield in the 1990s after starting in Bill’s backyard at his home in Cavendish.
The business now employs about 10 people at its packing operation on Paddock Road, and about four people at the farm itself. Most, if not all, of the employees will have to be laid off, the owners said.
Rick Thompson said the barn and quail were insured and that the family would rebuild and rebound.
Holding on to their customers will be a challenge, said Bill Thompson and his wife Judy, who still live in Cavendish.
The farm had started branching out into raising Berkshire pigs in January, feeding the pigs quail eggs that couldn’t be sold commercially. The pigs where thriving, said Bill Thompson, showing a video of the piglets on his cell phone.
“We had big plans for the pigs,” he said, saying the family was planning to raise them on grass pasture.
“They were thriving,” said his wife. “This is very upsetting.”
“We’ll clean this up, order new equipment and hope our customers stay with us,” he said.
The farm has big accounts with restaurants in Las Vegas and Chicago, Judy Thompson said. But she said while their first response will be sympathetic, they will quickly turn to “‘Where’s my product?’”
Russell Thompson, the fire chief, said firefighters set up relays from The Commons in Springfield, where water was taken from the municipal water system and trucked 2 miles up Woodbury Road to fight the fire, since the Cavendish Game Birds is not located on the town’s hydrant system.