Bald Eagle

BEA students get hands-on, farm-to-table experience

The head of a chicken was put between two nails before Bald Eagle Area science teacher Jade Thompson used a hatchet to behead the bird.

The nails were placed in a log a couple of inches apart to help keep the head of the chicken steady.

Thompson then threw the head into a bucket as a parent volunteer turned the chicken upside down and drained its blood into another bin.

To help soften the feathers, the body of the chicken was dipped into a pot of boiling water for about 20 seconds before it was handed to a student for the defeathering process.

That’s about as far as BEA sophomore Conner Williams got in the chicken processing operation Tuesday morning before leaving agriculture teacher Todd Biddle’s workshop, which was turned into a state-inspected chicken-processing facility.

“I felt like I had to vomit,” Williams said. “Chicken processing is not for the faint.”

At least one other student had a similar reaction.

But for 31 other students in Biddle’s animal science class, it was just another assignment.

For some, it also was the class final.


The processing was part of a larger sustainable agriculture school project started in the fall, and funded by a $5,000 grant from the National Farm to School Network.

District administration applied for the grant at the end of last school year, and was accepted July 24.

The district received the check in September, which Biddle said went toward purchasing supplies for the project.

Biddle developed curriculum that encouraged the students to raise their own chickens, grow their own corn, make their own food and then sell homemade chicken corn soup to benefit the program once the grant money runs out.

But it wasn’t just a project for high school students.

The idea was to first work with primary school students, and teach them embryology until the birds hatched in March and April, Biddle said.

Older students then helped maintain the chickens in a barn they built at the high school grounds near the football stadium.

And the latest part of the process was held Tuesday as students used Biddle’s ag room as a processing facility that was certified by a state inspector.

“It’s all about making choices,” Biddle said. “So many people think some foods cause cancer and can make you sick, but my students know the whole process. That was the goal; to see it from start to finish. When you’re educated you can make better choices.”


Each student was given a chicken to manually defeather and degut, and then rinse and cool.

Some students processed multiple chickens.

BEA senior and FFA President Adrianna Cohen, of Milesburg, said the easiest way to defeather the bird is to peel the feathers off in the opposite direction of how they grow.

Because students were asked to keep the skin on the chicken, a blowtorch was used to burn the remaining feathers off the bird before the evisceration process.

Students then made an incision into the bird and used their hands to remove the chicken’s internal organs.

That was arguably the most important part of the process, food sanitarian Dave Zimmerman, of the state Department of Agriculture, said.

If the intestines are cut, fecal matter could contaminate the bird and cause salmonella.

“It’s my job to make sure they’re doing it right, and it looks like they’re very cautious, because they know it’s where the most contamination could occur,” Zimmerman said. “I oversee the process, and especially make sure it goes from the evisceration process to the cooling process accurately and timely.”


Biddle and his students have been working with Zimmerman since the beginning of the year.

“We knew we had to be certified by the PDA,” Biddle said. “We set up with a regional coordinator and an area inspector, so they (the students) didn’t just learn about the raising and processing, but the government regulations to make sure it’s a sanitary and humane process.”

Junior Kami Woodring said the class discussed a list of options of how to humanely kill the bird.

“It’s a difficult thing to do compassionately, but I think the beheading is quick,” she said.

Thompson said once the chicken’s head is cut off, the bird lives just a few seconds until the brain is completely deprived of oxygen.

Safety, sanitation, humanity and proper disposal of chicken parts were all part of pre-lab curriculum before the hands-on processing, Biddle said.

In the fall, Biddle’s class will again work with Zimmerman, who will look to approve the facility where the students plan to make, serve and sell chicken corn soup.

The chicken will be stored in the freezers in the kitchen of Bald Eagle Area High School, and students will make, serve and sell the soup from the school’s kitchen and cafeteria, which is already a state-certified facility.

The soup recipe will also be crafted by students.

“The cooking process has another type of standards that we look at, but since they’ll be using a (facility) that is already certified and inspected, it will make that process a little easier,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve been here a long time, and are here very much as guidance for them.”

Biddle said money raised through chicken corn soup sales will go back into purchasing feed for more chickens they plan to get from a farmer in Belleville.

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo