Local schools team up to raise chickens

MIDDLEBURY — For those who think that chickens are only good for meat and eggs, take note: the flock being raised on the north campus of the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center has spent several months as teachers, as well.
They have played a central role in the unique “Chick-to-Plate” project, a collaboration between the Mary Hogan Elementary 5th grade classes and the agribusiness students at the Hannaford Career Center (HCC). In their short lives — spanning from early May to early July — they have taught students about everything from the merits of eating local food to the challenges of running an agriculture business.
Chickens for all!
Check out the Staff Blog to see our take on this unique project — and why it affects you more than you might think!
The eggs were incubated and hatched at Mary Hogan in the 5th grade classrooms of Jane Shepard, Phyllis Laliberte and Cathy Byers, and then were transferred to the HCC to be raised as meat birds by Janice Bosworth’s 11th and 12th grade agribusiness class. In early July, the chickens will be big enough to be slaughtered and sold to the community.
“We’ve been working on trying to do more farm-to-school activities so that kids know where their food comes from,” said Mary Gill, a nurse and health educator at Mary Hogan. The primary goal, she said, was for the kids to get “an understanding that food has to start somewhere and that they can participate in that raising of food.”
The Chick-to-Plate project is an expansion of the University of Vermont 4-H Embryology Project, which supplies eggs and incubators to elementary classrooms for the purpose of learning about the embryology and hatching process. This is the first time, however, that the chicks have continued to educate students long after emerging from their shells.
After moving to the HCC, the chicks continued to grow until they were big enough to live outside. Bosworth’s agribusiness students researched and selected a design for hoop houses, which the construction class at the HCC then built.
“They had to be portable, light enough to move,” said Bosworth, because the four houses are shifted on a daily basis to give the chickens a new patch of grass every day. Bosworth described the semi-circle roof design with wood foundations as “rugged, yet light” — perfect for the enclosed rotationally grazed system the class had planned.
Bosworth explained that such a system — which leaves the chickens outside and free to roam within an 8 x 10 patch of grass — has its disadvantages that make it undesirable for many commercial meat producers.
“The chickens are using some energy that might otherwise go to growth and development just to keep themselves warm when it gets cold,” she said. For this reason, many large-scale meat producers prefer to raise chickens indoors and in cages, where they can grow to a greater size.
“They see everything as a dollar sign,” said Bosworth. But while the aim of this project was to show her students some of the challenges associated with owning an agriculture business, she also wanted to show them how it can be done in a way that is humane to the animals.
Mt. Abe Union High School junior Morgan Coty, who started coming to the HCC at the beginning of this year, says that goal was largely achieved.
“We had to contract people to build the hoop houses, we had to figure out all the money for the grain and the feeders and stuff,” she said. “Learning that has been really helpful for when I go off and start my own (business).”
The class was divided into three teams: the housing team, responsible for finding and helping to build an appropriate hoop house design; the production team, in charge of caring for the chickens, ordering necessary supplies, and tracking their growth rate; and the marketing team, responsible for setting the price of the chickens, advertising and ultimately selling them. The teams were designed to mimic the responsibilities of a real-world business.
“We actually (got to) get out and try something, and we actually experienced that there’s quite a few expenses for (raising) chickens,” said Vergennes Union High School junior Jason Vorsteveld, a member of the housing team.
Classmate Cian Quinn, from the production team, echoed Vorsteveld’s sentiments.
“I’ve basically (learned) how many things you have to do to run a business,” said Quinn, an Otter Valley Union High School junior. “How you have to work together to make it work thoroughly.”
The class is now taking orders for the chickens, which will be slaughtered on July 6 and be sold for $3/pound. The class expects the chickens to reach about four to six pounds in the next several weeks. (Visit www.hannafordcareercenter.org/newsfor information about how to place your order.)
In addition to teaching juniors and seniors about the challenges of running an agriculture business, these chickens spent the first phase of their lives — as an embryo developing inside an egg — educating Mary Hogan 5th graders about everything from nutrition, to the benefits of growing and eating local food, to the bodily changes associated with puberty.
“The kids have been focusing on nutrition all year long,” said 5th grade teacher Phyllis Laliberte, “that’s been our theme all year. And then Mary (Gill) evolved it into (the idea of), ‘Where does your food come from?’ And it just fit in perfectly.”
As it happened, the embryology aspect also fit in perfectly with the puberty lesson Gill gives to 5th graders every year. She felt that it was a great tie-in that helped students understand the complicated process of reproduction.
“I think that they had a much greater understanding about … what fertilization is, (and) what happens when the egg gets fertilized,” said Gill. “It was easier to comprehend because they could actually see it.”
Although it was initially upsetting for some of the students to learn that the chicks would eventually be slaughtered and sold, it was ultimately a valuable learning experience.
 “It was a little sad,” said 5th grader Helen Anderson, of East Middlebury, “but I kind of understood that that’s the way of life, and that kind of happens all the time.”
It also helped that Bosworth’s class came into Mary Hogan on several occasions to work with the 5th graders and teach them about the biology of an egg. They also explained how the chickens would be raised humanely, in contrast to many large meat farms.
“It was really nice knowing that they were going out in the field and eating the bugs, and they weren’t really sick and then being killed,” said Anderson, whose class also saw the film Fresh, which explained the difference between raising chickens in a factory and raising them in a field.
Gill also sees an added benefit to showing students early on that their food can be raised and sold locally.
“I think the economy of our state is going to be more dependent upon us raising food here and selling locally. So, I think it’s a great opportunity for our kids to see this a viable career option.”
For all involved, the experience was not just educational, but captivating and exciting.
“We had just about every grade come down through our classrooms once they had hatched,” said 5th grade teacher Jane Shepard, “(and) it was exciting for everybody.”
“I didn’t know anything about chickens,” Laliberte admitted, “so this was a real educational experience for me, too. I got excited along with them.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at [email protected]

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