By Taylor Follette
Unity College FFA in Maine has a unique approach to agriculture and service. Because our school is focused on sustainability science, our FFA chapter tends to favor the organic, alternative, diversified and emerging agricultural models.
Currently we are excited to be working to raise pastured poultry based upon the model that farmer and author Joel Salatin uses on Polyface Farm in Virginia. This includes chicken tractors that are moved frequently to have access to fresh grass at all times.
The chickens raised will be donated to local food pantries to help alleviate hunger in our community. This ongoing project was made possible thanks to collaboration with Waldo County Technical Center FFA, a local high school chapter, and a Food For All grant through the National FFA Organization’s Living to Serve program.
Unity College requires service of students in clubs and classes. When our chapter learned about the Food For All grant, which funds a service-learning project that relieves hunger, we jumped at the opportunity. This project also fulfilled our chapter’s interest in working with other FFA chapters. We contacted Waldo County Technical Center to ask how we could collaborate; they are now our primary partner on projects and mentoring work.
In 2012, our collegiate chapter collaborated with the high school chapter to plan the project; design and build chicken tractors; raise 40 Red Broilers; and harvest and donate the meat. Some students in our collegiate chapter used the project to study certain aspects of production, such as FCR (feed conversion ratio).
Since the first year was such a success, we applied for the grant a second time to continue the project. Equipped with the knowledge and experience of last year, we plan to pasture raise 100 broilers, but this time we will compare production methods (looking specifically at the square footage of grass per bird). Of course, we feel great about the chickens going to help our neighbors, but we are excited to be mentoring high school students and helping them consider pursuing a college education, too.
Unity Collegiate FFA President Shayne Van Leer helped put the Food For All project into motion by researching, creating a budget and leading the team. Van Leer is from Berlin, N.J., which is a predominately suburban area. He does not have an agricultural background and was not familiar with FFA, but his interest in agriculture was sparked during high school, when he gardened in his backyard and raised chickens. Upon entering Unity College in 2009 as a sustainable agriculture major, Van Leer joined the FFA chapter as historian, later climbing the ranks to vice president and then president. In his time at Unity, Van Leer has interned at a grass-fed beef farm where he ran his own small-scale poultry operation, which reinforced his love for agriculture.
Van Leer is just one example of the diversity of students who are engaging with agriculture and FFA for the first time at Unity. Students studying environmental education, wildlife, ecology and conservation law enforcement have found ways to plug into service and community engagement through our FFA chapter. We envision that FFA, and the chicken project specifically, will become permanent fixtures on our campus so our students never forget how food gets to their table.
Taylor Follette double majors in wildlife and wildlife biology at Unity College. She will graduate in 2015.