Thomas Jefferson once said, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.” Students across Montana embrace this idea in schools that incorporate 4-H curricula and hands-on, learn-by-doing opportunities. Montana State University Extension educators are in a unique position to support 4-H through in-school and afterschool education.

One 4-H opportunity that was offered in school on the Flathead Reservation is the Poultry Project. Like many 4-H projects, it can be tailored for in-school or afterschool and can be done individually or as a group effort. 4-H programs offered in a school setting aim to create a diverse and fair opportunity for all youth to take part. The 4-H focus on teaching life skills often results in lessons that reach beyond the foundations of the standard school curriculum.

In 2020, more than 300 Flathead Reservation youth, and 200 more youth and families through distance learning, participated in person or virtually in the 4-H meat poultry project. The purpose of the program was to promote food sovereignty and agriculture education in elementary schools. At a time when field trips and other group activities were not available, agriculture was brought to the classroom. The Flathead Reservation Extension Office (FREO) partnered with two elementary schools to implement this two-part 4-H program. In the first phase, pre-Kindergarten through first graders were invited to learn to incubate and hatch meat poultry. Academic skills were supported through STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) activities while social development was encouraged through sharing and small group interactions.

little girl hapily holding a small brown chick.

Photo: Adriane Good, MSU Extension

While Montana State Common Core education measures were met, school and FREO educators were not expecting the level of social and emotional learning that took place. As students took ownership of the project, attendance rates increased. One school shared that a student had recently lost his mother. After multiple attempts to re-engage the family in school, the student was still not attending. However, once the incubators arrived and the poultry project began, the student did not miss a day of school. This agriculture in the classroom project did what mainstream education could not to encourage a grieving family and child to return to school. Virtual engagement also increased as families learned from home. On hatching day, one of the live feed cameras went down. At 9:30 p.m., the school principal was receiving phone calls at home because families could not watch the hatching, so staff raced to the school and got the camera rolling again.

The second phase of the project began as summer arrived. Hatched chicks were taken to the Extension Agent’s house to finish maturing. Then at harvest, older elementary and high school youth were invited to learn about where food comes from and the importance of growing and sustaining food resources. Youth who had never seen or touched a live chicken were given the opportunity to do so. Students discussed the process of raising meat poultry and collaborated with a trained butcher to harvest the chickens. One young man said, “Next year I am going to raise my own chickens and feed my own family.” Cultural practices included talking about the indigenous traditions of hunting/gathering and giving prayers to thank the chickens for their gift of sustenance. According to tradition, as a first-time project, all 55 pounds of meat were given away. The Tribal Elders lunch program was the recipient of this gift.

Both schools have continued to work with FREO to host the project during each spring quarter. When asked about funding for this or similar 4-H projects, FREO educator Brenda Richey recommended keeping an eye out for grant opportunities, listening and responding to community supporters, and being willing to think outside of the box. Last year, with heightened awareness of avian flu, support came from the local FFA high school chapter. Two FFA teens had their own poultry flock of egg layers, and donated a variety of eggs for Phase 1. This allowed the project to get eggs all from one place and in return, the hatched chicks went back to their original flock. These two FFA high school students supported a school-wide student assembly for the 4-H poultry project, and brought hens for a 4-H live demonstration. The willingness to think outside of the box for this sustainable agriculture in the classroom 4-H poultry program led to learning and teaching opportunities for multiple ages. For more information about this program, contact Brenda Richey at (406) 731-3810 or email her at [email protected].

little girl and adult interacting with egg incubator.

Photo: Brenda Richey, MSU Extension


Brenda Richey is the MSU Extension Agent on the Flathead Reservation.