CASA GRANDE -- There’s a science behind raising a moist and tasty chicken. And in a classroom at Casa Grande Union High School, agriculture students are learning what it takes to raise, nurture, process, package and sell chickens and turkeys that leave consumers wanting more.
“The birds we raise are well cared for and aren’t under any stress,” said Ashton Redd, a senior and FFA member at the school. “We process them as humanely as possible to keep their stress levels low, and then we get the temperature down as quickly as possible and have them packaged the day after they’re processed.”
The school’s poultry program began last year and immerses students in all aspects of production — from raising chicks, feeding them, watching them grow to humanely slaughtering, processing, packing and marketing the birds.
All steps of the process are done on the school campus and students are involved in each step.
“We take a business approach to this project,” said CGUHS FFA adviser and teacher Casey Farnsworth. “The students invest their own money. They care for the chickens and process them. They see how the process works from start to finish and get the full experience.”
This year, the school will raise and process about 2,000 chickens as well as about 34 turkeys.
The life of a CGUHS FFA chicken begins in a classroom. The chicks arrive when they are only a few days old and spend about two weeks in a warm environment, growing, gaining weight and becoming mature enough to be moved outside.
Once outside, they spend about five weeks in a spacious pen where they grow and eat.
Freshman FFA students are in charge of feeding the birds, watering them and keeping their environment as stress-free as possible.
“The life they live makes a big difference on the quality of the meat,” Redd said. “They’re fed a high-quality feed and we keep their stress levels low.”
The chickens are slaughtered in batches and sophomore FFA member Justin “JJ” Jordan said students work quickly to ensure that the birds do not feel stressed during the process.
“To slaughter them, we place the birds head-down in a stainless steel cone,” Jordan said.
Working quickly, students slit the throat of each bird, allow the blood to drain, then plop the bird into hot water to loosen the feathers. Birds are then placed in a tumbler to remove the feathers before being transferred to a specialty processing shed where additional processing and packaging take place.
Slaughtering and preparing the birds to be moved inside takes about 10 minutes.
“Everyone has a job to do and it goes pretty quickly,” Farnsworth said.
Once inside the processing shed, students prepare the birds for packaging by removing the organs and necks as well as any feathers that remain.
“Removing the organs can be kind of gross. Sometimes the spleen will break open and we’ll see this green goo, but we try to have fun with it and it’s super cool to see the anatomy of the birds and see each organ,” Redd said.
The cleaned birds are placed in a bucket of ice water to lower the body temperature, then they’re packaged. A USDA seal is put on each package.
“We record everything, including the weight of every bird,” Redd said.
Some of the birds are sent home with the students who invested in the project and others are sold either through the school or through the University of Arizona’s Food Product and Safety Lab in Tucson.
“I haven’t sold too many because I keep my chickens after they’re processed and my family eats it,” said Jordan, who is one of the student investors. “It’s really good chicken.”
The processing method used by the students is one of the secrets to ensuring the birds are more moist and tender than a typical chicken bought at a grocery store, Farnsworth said.
“Most chicken that you buy in a grocery store is not processed that quickly. With our process, the chickens are packaged and frozen within 24 hours of being slaughtered,” he said.
As well as chickens, the school also raises turkeys for Thanksgiving. Some are sold but most are donated.
The school this year raised 36 turkeys, then partnered with the school’s Family, Career and Community Leaders of America program and marketing club, DECA, to give away 20 birds in Thanksgiving food boxes for families in need. Each box included a fresh turkey as well as potatoes, side dishes, vegetables, milk, sugar, flour and a pumpkin pie made by the school’s culinary classes.
Those who want to purchase a chicken or a Thanksgiving turkey can make arrangements by messaging Farnsworth through the Casa Grande FFA Chapter Facebook page or by calling the school at 836-8500, ext. 3655.