Sonora High School junior Jordan Hampton crouched inside a rust-streaked trailer parked at the Wildcat Ranch and cradled three chirping chicks.
Around her, almost 100 more pranced and tweeted in a bed of shavings, under the red heat lamps and in circular dishes of feed.
In about two months, they’ll all be dinner.
“I've raised poultry since I was nine and my family made a business out of it,” said Hampton, who is 16. “I thought we could get other students involved. It's a good opportunity for kids to get an introduction to agriculture.”
Led by Hampton, vice president of the Sonora High School chapter of Future Farmers of America, agriculture students have established a poultry production co-op this year to expand agricultural uses of the district-owned Wildcat Ranch.
“I think this will be an amazing experience and opportunity to learn about the meat bird production industry. It should be a good thing because we’re going to have a lot of members involved,” said Gregory Crook, treasurer of the Sonora High School FFA chapter.
The 137-acre property located at Tuolumne Road and Wards Ferry Road is no longer being parceled off and sold to The Park Foundation, a non-profit who wished to build a community park there, following a protracted legal battle against the district by another local non-profit, The Tuolumne County Farm Bureau.
Students involved with the poultry co-op said they want to show what they can accomplish when they work together — and hopefully attract more ideas and more participation in the school’s agriculture program.
Stacy Ingalls, Sonora High School agriculture teacher, said projects at the Wildcat Ranch have been limited to those related to the Mother Lode Fair in recent years due to diminishing funding, noting there used to be a garden, potato production and aquaculture.
“There were a few more things that needed a few more numbers to participate,” she said. “With this, it’s bringing in opportunities for projects that involve larger numbers of students. Once we get more kids out here, they see that this is a facility that is theirs to utilize for other projects.”
The poultry co-op is meant to kick-off a new era for the ranch — plans are being developed to construct a long-awaited livestock barn — and Hampton said she is committed to ensuring the project is a success.
“I’m working for a career in agriculture in the future, so it kind of fits in with that and with caring for animals,” she said.
The 102 Cornish Cross chicks scuttling about inside the trailer were born Monday in Gonzales and shipped to Tuolumne County the next day.
In all, 13 to 14 students will manage the feeding, security and growth of the chickens over three weeks in the on-site trailer until they are moved into mobile chicken pens built by the high school’s agriculture mechanics class.
After eight weeks, the approximately five pound chickens will be processed — slaughtered, de-feathered and packaged — before they are sold in a community fundraiser to benefit FFA.
“It’s really important people from all generations know how their food is produced and that my generation, the up and coming generation, can learn how to improve on the process to ensure the security of the food supply with less producers and area to produce and more people to produce for,” said Crook.
Hampton said she instituted the idea as an extension of her family farm in Jamestown, Lazy JH Farm, to give other students their first experiences raising animals as a group.
“I'm excited and I think members are too. We have a lot of member support,” Hampton said. “We’re going to sell them to the community and families that want them.”
Hampton said it cost $1.28 per bird and will cost over $200 for 12 bags of seed to feed them. She plans to sell the chickens for $25 at the end of the two-month process in mid-November.
The proceeds will go back to FFA and also to the students who worked on the project.
Ingalls said she hopes the poultry cultivation will be a year-round event and even expand to items such as turkeys in later years.
The students will break for the winter and, depending on the success of the project, re-start in the spring with a new batch of chicks.
Ingalls said there were a few more students enrolled in agriculture classes this year, at just over 200.
The Wildcat Ranch will host a variety of community and educational events throughout the school year following the previous weekend’s 8th Annual Glenn Bass Run: a one-mile run and a five-kilometer run named for the now-retired Sonora High School coach of track and field and cross country.
Sasha Farkas, second vice president for Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, said volunteers from the agriculture community went out to the ranch before the run to repair damage to the five-kilometer cross-country course which winds around the perimeter of the property.
Farkas said 150 feet to 200 feet of the course had significant rutting caused by work crews hired by the Park Foundation prior to the dissolution of their $1 million contract to purchase 112 acres from the district.
In March, Superintendent Mark Miller allowed county jail inmates under the direction of Tuolumne County Sheriff’s deputies hired by the Park Foundation to remove brush and debris along the track.
“I’m not blaming anything on the Sheriff’s inmates. They were just doing their job. I just think the school and Park Foundation could have used better judgement,” Farkas said.
The volunteers used a small tractor to flatten out the ruts and did some grass shearing, Farkas said.
Ron Jacobs, president of the Park Foundation, did not return a request for comment.
Ingalls said volunteers were essential to the general upkeep of the property, but there still remained multiple downed trees and damaged fences from winter storms.
“It needs to be maintained and not postponed. I don't see that it's going to be a huge cost to the district to be able to move forward, but it’s also going to take time,” Ingalls said. “We are working with my advisory committee to get some help with the downed trees and the poison oak, which is absolutely out of control.”
Ingalls said she hoped to get Boer goats at the property to eat through the poison oak.
Ingalls said Sonora High School alumnus Jake Gookin was not able to use the livestock to manage vegetation for fire danger because of the ongoing litigation over the sale of the ranch, she said.
Previously, ranchers such as Dick Gaiser (who filed a Brown Act complaint against the district during their negotiations with the Park Foundation) had used the site for cattle grazing.
Other community events at the Wildcat Ranch include a Columbia College walking class and agriculture department events such as the Community Egg Hunt in April.
Primarily, the Wildcat Ranch will be used by students raising livestock in preparation for the Mother Lode Fair, such as showmanship clinics for swine, sheep and goats and a county-wide beef hooftrimming in March.
Ingalls said a professional hoof trimmer will be at the site and available to students from all county schools to ensure their steers are structurally sound for the fair.
Farkas said the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau will continue to provide annual college scholarships for students pursuing careers in agriculture. He said the group provides small donations throughout the year and equipment when requested by agriculture school staff.
“Anyway we can help out, we are willing to,” Farkas said.