Chicken project imparts valuable lessons

MIDDLEBURY — Mary Hogan Elementary School fifth-graders hatched them, Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center agribusiness students raised them and Middlebury College students will eat them.
Without leaving the town of Middlebury, the 203 chickens of the Chick-to-Plate project have been teachers to more than 200 students — by career center Director Lynn Coale’s count — and now, will be dinner to hundreds more.
Janice Bosworth’s agribusiness class for 11th- and 12th-graders spent the latter months of the last school year raising a brood of meat birds that had been hatched in fifth-grade classroom at Middlebury’s elementary school. The Cornish hens taught the fifth-graders about nutrition and puberty, and the agribusiness students about the challenges involved with raising and selling chickens.
The birds were raised in four hoop houses — built by a career center construction class — on the center’s north campus off Mainelli Road. Before slaughter, students said they had a blast raising the chickens.
But if adversity is the best teacher, then the students’ greatest learning experience came when they tried to sell the chickens to the community.
“I think the kids got really frustrated with the sales part of it,” said Coale.
As the July 6 slaughter date neared, there were still roughly 100 chickens left unsold. Much like a real business that undersells a product, the career center students found themselves wondering, “What are we gonna do with all these chickens? We have these bills to pay,” Coale said.
The chickens themselves were acquired with grant money, but the cost for two months feeds and processing them had to be recouped.
“I think they were really concerned that they were going to put all this work in and then end up owing money on this project,” said Coale.
According the Bosworth, the project was so multi-faceted that it was hard to stay on top of the marketing aspect.
 “A lot of times everything is happening at once,” she said. “You have to build the houses, you have get the chicks, you have to get the science behind it. It was a little hard to be on top of the sales.”
The first major beneficiary to the project was an HCC faculty member who bought 60 chickens for a large gathering, which left almost 40 chickens left unsold with the slaughter date right around the corner.
That’s when Middlebury College stepped in.
“Middlebury College stepped to the plate and took everything we had left,” said Coale. Though that ended up being only 40 or so chickens, Coale noted that the college would have been willing to buy all 203, if they were still available.
Matthew Biette, director of dining services at the college, said it was not a difficult decision.
“We do support a lot of these local ventures,” he said. “Ideally we’d have way more chicken coming to us locally.”
According to Biette, the chickens will all be served together in one special, all-local meal for incoming first-year students — a good introduction to the principle of sustainability, an idea the college has tied into its goal of carbon neutrality by 2016.
“This is all about communities,” said Biette. “Sustainability is community, and this ties it together.”
Although it might seem that Middlebury College’s support has saved the unique project’s future — with such a large buyer, students need no longer be concerned that there will be leftover chickens — it is not immediately clear what model the project will follow next year.
“We might just grow them and sell all of them to Middlebury College,” said Bosworth, “but also … it was supposed to be an educational (experience) for the students, and a big part of it is sales and marketing.”
It is, after all, an agribusiness class, where students learn the basics of maintaining an agricultural business. Having a guaranteed mass buyer would undercut the important lesson that a business often rises and falls with the market demand.
Nor is it clear that a financial loss on the project would have necessarily doomed it for the future.
“It was a great project,” said Coale. “If we had to eat all the birds ourselves, it still would have been a great project. I think the teachers were really supportive of it, and thought good learning went on there.”
For the students’ sake, however, Coale is grateful to the college for their support.
“I think (for) the students, knowing that Middlebury College is going to be there is a very important piece for them,” Coale said. “When I told them that Middlebury College was taking the rest of the chickens, you could just see the relief on their faces.”
Coale, like Bosworth, believes the marketing aspect must remain at the core of the class.
“Part of our curriculum is the marketing,” said Coale, “so I think we will still attempt to figure out some ways to market chickens.”
But there is no doubt that the college’s willingness to step in and be a buyer when necessary will help keep this project alive and financially solvent.
“Middlebury College (has) said that they will always be our back-up,” said Coale. “I think that they’re really supportive of the project. From the people I’ve talked to, they thought it was a great idea, (and) they really wanted to help us out.”
Reporter Ian Trombulak is at [email protected].

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