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Feeding Community, 4 Years Running: Coastal Plains Chicken Project

picture looking down into an open ice chest with whole chickens in it
All photos: Margaret Bell Ross

Farm to Fork, Farm to Table, Eat Local – there are a lot of movements out there with a common goal: help consumers know where their food comes from.

NC State Extension’s own Fork to Farmer and other programs highlight connections between farmers, chefs, families, communities and industry.

For chickens, the 2019 Coastal Plains Chicken Project covered it all: classroom programs that meet state curriculum requirements, 4-H and FFA youth programming, community engagement, hands-on help and local food education.

How did they do it? Collaboration.

Since 2016, N. C. Cooperative Extension has connected county centers and agents, Area Specialized Agents (like Margaret Ross, Eastern ASA for poultry), NC State Prestage Department of Poultry Science experts, 4-H and FFA groups, home school and classroom teachers, and more, to share poultry knowledge – and food – with the whole community.

Twelve counties in eastern North Carolina contributed to the project: Carteret, Craven, Duplin, Greene, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir, Pamlico, Pender, Pitt, Onslow and Wayne.

An Egg-cellent Start

It’s no riddle: for the Coastal Plains Chicken Project, the eggs came first. Through coordinated embryology projects in local classrooms, 4-H agents got things started by helping place eggs and incubators in classrooms. Students learned about development and hatched eggs during class. As the eggs incubated, students completed activities and learned more about what was happening inside the shell.

Once the embryology programs hatched the eggs and got the chicks off to a good start, the chicks were placed with students who raised them. Participating students came from home school groups, FFA and 4-H.

Raising the Chickens

The chicken stars of the Coastal Plains Chicken Project were mainly broilers (meat birds). Youth from 5 to 18 raised picked up birds (the broilers and some laying hens) in March, taking the chicks from their classroom incubators to be raised on small farms and backyards.

a girl holds a laying hen
Anna Claire Wells with one of her hens (photo: Dan Wells)

Those birds stayed with the youth who learned how to raise and care for them under the direction of county agents, FFA leaders and 4-H leaders. As they raised the birds, they learned how to keep them healthy and how to exhibit them. In addition to animal care, animal welfare and biosecurity, students learned about what makes a good market bird and what to expect when taking animals to market.

About 200 youth participated in the 2019 Coastal Plains Chicken Project. One, Anna Claire Wells, 12, was new to raising chickens.

“She playfully suggested chickens,” her dad, Dan Wells, Extension Agent for Livestock in Johnston County, explained. He had asked if Anna Claire wanted to branch out from the goats she’s shown for years.

From that exchange, the Wells family got three laying hen chicks – they thought! When one of the ‘hens’ starting learning to crow, the Wells re-homed him with a neighbor.

That left two Delaware hens for Anna Claire to raise. Even without winning her first time out, Anna Claire – and the Wells family – “enjoyed these chickens so much,” Dan said.

Anna Claire added, “I liked doing something different and having such fun and amusing chickens.” Their experience didn’t end with the show: any day now, the hens should start laying.

Showing Chickens and Knowledge

Once the birds were fully grown, they were ready to be exhibited at the project’s poultry show in May. First, they were tested by NCDA inspectors for parasites and diseases – healthy birds were cleared to be shown by their young owners.

young people with chickens at a long table

While showing their birds, youth display what they’ve learned about showmanship, animal welfare and chicken production. They demonstrate proper handling of a bird. They keep their animals calm (and stay calm themselves, even when answering questions from the judges). They show – and can explain – what makes their bird a winner.

Whether showing a market-bound broiler or laying hens they’ll take home, students bring poultry and presentation skills together. As a bonus, there are cash prices for showmanship and breed champions.

Hands-on Processing Demo

After the poultry judging show, participants’ broiler chickens stay with the project team: they’re market-ready and are used to demonstrate appropriate processing.

two people sitting looking at a projector screen and speaker

Before the demo, there were four presentations to set the stage for processing. Prestage Department of Poultry Science research technician Christina Sigmon presented along with Melanie Pollard (NCDA&CS Meat and Poultry Inspection Division), Sarah Blacklin (NC Choices) and Ainslie and Meg Guion (The Farm on Grape Creek) to introduce workshop attendees to the applicable policies, procedures and experiences.

Getting a chicken ready to eat takes multiple steps. Everything from de-feathering to final chilling was demonstrated, along with safety and sanitation guidelines.

two outside tents with people gathered around tables

Giving Back

It doesn’t get more local than the Coastal Plains Chicken Project: the chickens were raised by local youth, processed by local experts and distributed to local food banks.

Healthy chickens raised well are a favorite protein in the U.S. and North Carolina is no exception. With this project, more North Carolinians can put chicken on the table, thanks to the project’s commitment to the entire production cycle.

Almost 1,000 pounds of meat was donated from this year’s project. Chicken went to the Helping Hands Soup Kitchen (Pitt County), The Filling Station (Jones County), Duplin Crisis Center (Duplin County), Make A Difference Food Pantry (Wayne County) and Mary’s Soup Kitchen (Lenoir County).

Partnering with food banks means that youth don’t only learn how to raise healthy animals or how to show those animals. They see what it means to give back – the person enjoying their chicken might be their neighbor, classmate or someone else they see every day.

They may never know who they helped, but they’ll know that their hard work made a difference in their community.