UV adds chickens to agriculture program

Sarah Eames | The Daily StarFrom left, Joey Thomsen, Ava Rowe and Brynn Grant, eighth-graders at Unadilla Valley Central School, hold chickens Tuesday in front of the school’s new mobile chicken coop.

NEW BERLIN — Students at Unadilla Valley Central School last week welcomed their first flock of chickens to the school.

Eight chickens will be housed in the school’s chicken tractor, a mobile chicken coop that allows students in the school’s agriculture program to keep and care for the birds on school grounds.

The mobile coop was purchased with a grant through New York Agriculture in the Classroom, an outreach program of Cornell University, through its agricultural literacy grant program, according to Jessica DeVries, who teaches agriscience at the school and advises the local FFA chapter.

Though the chickens have yet to be officially named, the students affectionately christened a few with nicknames such as “Chicken Salad” and “Chicken Soup.”

“The students will work with the chickens, watch them hatch and take care of any health problems,” DeVries said.

The school’s kindergarten classes have been hatching chicks for more than a decade, she said, “but the kids never see past the first feathering stage.”

Through the program, the kindergartners — “our ag buddies,” DeVries said — will be provided with take-home “chicken backpacks,” filled with age-appropriate books and resources on raising the birds.

The chickens, which were hatched in April, are now mature enough to begin laying eggs of their own, DeVries said. At the suggestion of eighth-grader Madison Parker, the class’ “resident chicken expert,” the students placed golf balls in the chickens’ roost in an effort to instigate egg-laying and lined it with hay to make them comfortable.

In addition to a steady diet of grain and poultry grit — about 10 pounds every five days — the chickens are free to feed on whatever insects they encounter in the school lawn, something chickens in a traditional coop might not have access to, DeVries said.

The coop has yet to be outfitted with a run for the chickens, made from a donated trampoline that will be fenced in, DeVries said. During the winter, the tractor will be parked next to the greenhouse and equipped with heated water and timer-operated lights to ensure the chickens produce eggs year-round.

The tractor is moved a few feet at a time around the perimeter of the school’s property, which addresses some of the preliminary concerns about odor, DeVries said. Each time the tractor is moved, students collect the chicken excrement and add it to a compost bin.

About 85% of the school’s waste is composted, DeVries said; including food scraps from the cafeteria and family and consumer science classes, coffee grounds from school offices, brown paper towels and empty milk cartons.

The program is designed to be self-sustainable, DeVries said; with each class hatching the next generation of chickens. Eggs will also be provided to the cafeteria throughout the school year and to two local food pantries during breaks, DeVries said.

“This is the first push to bring animals on campus and provide a service to the community,” DeVries said.

Raising livestock on school property has long been a goal of the agriculture education program, according to DeVries, who said she hopes one day to erect a barn for students to raise and show animals of their own.

The school also maintains a greenhouse and a 60-fish aquaponics program, which produces lettuce for the school cafeteria, she said.

The agriculture program offers more than 50 credits through partnerships with five different colleges, according to DeVries.

“New York state used to be one of the biggest states for ag ed in the ’70s,” DeVries said, but many programs lost momentum throughout the following decades. In recent years, the field has resurged in popularity, creating a deficit of teachers as the demand grows, DeVries said.

“Ag was STEM before STEM was cool,” she said, noting that most of the 11 classes in the program available for students in grades eight through 12 count as a science credit.

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.

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