Judging chickens at Delaware State Fair something to squawk about

HARRINGTON — When it comes to agriculture in Delaware there is no doubt that poultry rules the roost.

After all, approximately 70 percent of Delaware’s cash farm income in 2016 was from meat chickens.

And, don’t forget, the official state bird is the Delaware Blue Hen.

So chickens are naturally a big deal. Especially when it comes to the FFA Poultry and Egg Evaluation competition at the Delaware State Fair.

Eighteen FFA students, including four each that comprised high school teams from Lake Forest, Milford, Indian River and Christiana and two students from Millsboro Middle School took their turns evaluating poultry products in the Centre on Friday morning.

“Sussex County is one of the biggest areas in the country when it comes to poultry, so it’s a really integral part of the agricultural industry in Delaware,” said Indian River FFA advisor Kevin Cordrey. He serves as the co-chair of Poultry and Eggs for the FFA along with Judith Bruns from Milford.

“This helps the students gain a little more knowledge into the industry and its processes,” he added.

The competition was definitely not a poultry beauty pageant as 20 broiler chickens dangled down from hangars and awaited the judges’ evaluation, looking for things such as defects before grading each bird.

That was just one of 12 unique categories that the students were evaluating between poultry and eggs.

“It’s really about teaching the students what the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, uses to actually grade and make sure our food is safe,” Ms. Bruns said. “The students are really evaluating all stages of the poultry industry, as well as the egg industry.

“Anything that we can consume in America gets evaluated by the USDA and these students are actually learning those exact same USDA standards and then applying them to learn how to grade them.”

Mr. Cordrey said the FFA students have to absorb and memorize a lot of information in order to be successful in the competition.

“This competition pretty much takes care of pretty much all of the poultry industry – laying hens, broilers, candling eggs, egg grading, so they get just about everything they need,” he said.

The students also judged things such as chicken patties, nuggets, bone-in chicken, wings and eggs – bother exterior and interior – and graded each product.

It was not an eating contest, rather, a food-quality evaluation.

At the end of the evaluation, each student had to provide oral reasons for their poultry and egg grades in front of a panel of judges.

That was the one thing that seemed to scare most of the students, not the chickens dangling from hooks.

Ally Edwards, a junior at Lake Forest, said she is the first one from her family who is interested in agriculture.

She admitted it was a difficult contest on Friday.

“The hardest part to me is probably giving the oral reasons,” she said. “I’ve been interested in agriculture since sixth grade when I started FFA in middle school.”

Celine Lester, a junior at Milford, said she wound up in FFA in a roundabout way – and now she is evaluating poultry products. She said she is “interested in farm animals … especially cows.”

She added, “I got interested in FFA because it was just something extra that I needed to do for extra points in school.

“But it’s interesting. This competition is tough because you have to memorize a lot.”

It was up to the FFA chairs and advisors to set up the evaluation center, which had several different stages.

Ms. Bruns said they were thankful for the poultry donations they received in order to have the evaluations.

“We get poultry products and eggs from community members and businesses around the area,” Ms. Bruns said. “Perdue and Mountaire Farms have donated products, and we set it up for them.”

The winners of the FFA Poultry and Egg Evaluation will receive their awards at next Friday’s FFA Awards Ceremony at the Entertainment Tent on the fairgrounds at 9 a.m.

Ms. Bruns said even if a student doesn’t earn a ribbon, at least they will have some added knowledge that they can use.

“They really learn exactly what the USDA inspectors learn in the chicken plants and the egg production facilities,” she said. “So it’s valuable information to know.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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