Lyon County student-run turkey farm serving up lessons on business, agriculture skills
Eighth grader Mackenzie Harper hadn’t realized all the work that goes into producing turkeys for Thanksgiving. But on Monday, she and other students at Smith Valley School got a taste of what it takes to get the birds to the dinner plate.
Thanksgiving is serious business for students at the K-12 school located in Smith Valley, a rural, agricultural community that sits between Yerington and Gardnerville. For the past decade, the school’s students have been running a turkey farm where they raise and sell the birds for community members to eat for the holiday.
On Monday, 38 of the 39 turkeys that arrived at the school over the summer as chicks were butchered by students in the school’s agriculture classes. Smith Valley students gathered near the turkey pens early in the morning as the birds watched from behind a fence, waiting for their demise.
The turkey farm student manager, senior Carsen DeChambeau, led this year’s processing operation. The 17-year-old had been preparing for this day since she was hired for the role in April.
DeChambeau spent her junior year shadowing the previous student manager to better understand the job before taking it over.
“I enjoy doing it because I like seeing people's faces when they get the bird and afterwards they tell me how it tastes and how good it was. I just like getting those compliments, I guess,” she said.
The turkey farm is just one of the many Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) programs that are offered at Smith Valley School. Over the years, the students have sold everything from berries, fish, pig, rabbits and ice cream to wool and honey.
The school’s principal, Duane Mattice, said the SAE programs not only provide students with a firsthand look of where their food comes from but also gives them a taste of careers in business and agriculture.
“I think in education, a lot of times the classes that the kids take feel disconnected from their lives and what they're going to try to achieve as an end result, whereas something like this is directly applicable, it's hands on, it's all the good things that you hope learning encompasses,” he said.
Learning business chops
SAE programs offered at Smith Valley aim to give the students the full experience of what it takes to run an agricultural business, including succeeding in the interview and hiring process. For their interview, students must come prepared with plans on how they would run and market the business to ensure it makes a profit.
The student managers are typically high schoolers, but some middle schoolers do get involved, either as an apprentice or a co-manager partnered with an older student.
Agriculture science teacher Brittany Pimental said students learn not only technical skills such as managing a budget but also soft skills such as how to multitask.
“If they choose to continue on in their education, they're a little more prepared for having to juggle multiple things at a time,” Pimental said. “But if they decide to go straight to the workforce, they have something that looks nice on their resume, as well as having that business experience underneath their belt.”
Smith Valley student managers get to keep 60 percent of the profits brought in by the business. The rest goes back into the business for future years.
Sometimes, failing is part of the learning process, Mattice said.
Mattice recalls a former student manager who faced a series of unfortunate events while running the school’s honey business, including personal issues and a disease that ravaged that hive and decimated production that year.
“They have to figure out what things impacted the outcome, and what things they can control and change for the next year, and how hopefully that will then lead to a more profitable experience,” he said.
Once a new student is hired as turkey farm manager each April, one of their first duties is to decide how many turkeys they want to raise, order the chicks and get their pens cleaned up before their arrival in August.
Once the chicks arrive, the student manager is responsible for checking on them at least three times per day to make sure they’re doing well and have plenty of food and water.
In addition to caring for the turkeys, the student manager is also responsible for other aspects of running a farm, including purchasing turkey feed and staying on top of the farm’s finances.
Prior to becoming the turkey manager, DeChambeau had experience working with livestock, including turkeys, through her involvement in her school’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) club. Her family owns a dozen chickens and a steer. The job also aligns with DeChambeau’s goal of pursuing a career as a veterinarian for large animals such as horses, cows and pigs.
“I get to learn what it takes to raise an animal, what the procedures are if the animal gets sick, how to treat that, how to butcher them at the end and basically running a business,” she said.
DeChambeau is also learning time management. She’s also involved in sports and clubs such as FFA, the National Honor Society and student council, so she had to make time to care for the turkeys on top of her school work and extracurricular activities.
DeChambeau said her favorite part about being student manager has been watching the animals grow into mature birds.
“I think they're pretty ugly, but I like them,” she said. “I think they all have different attitudes if you watch them in their pens. They're kind of funny.”
Processing the turkeys
Before the turkeys lost their heads, Mattice held his annual pardoning ceremony, a tradition he added when he started as the school’s principal five years ago.
“I went to the student business manager at the time and I asked him if I could pardon a turkey and he looked at me like I had rocks in my head,” he said, adding that the student manager eventually warmed up to the idea.
Mattice dressed up for the ceremony in a white T-shirt stamped with turkeys, pumpkins and orange leaves paired with a bright orange neck tie. This year’s winner is a light brown bird named Christmas, that was handpicked by DeChambeau.
Mattice buys a turkey each year as a gift for the student manager as a way to thank them for their hard work. This year, the turkeys were priced at $50 each. Mattice said the student manager is free to do whatever they want with the pardoned turkey — eat them for their Thanksgiving dinner, spare their life, keep them as a pet or use them for breeding.
DeChambeau said she’s decided to let Christmas live out of the rest of its days at her house with her chickens.
The remaining 38 turkeys weren’t as lucky.
In her first year participating in the school’s turkey processing day, eighth grader Mackenzie Harper helped pluck the feathers off the turkeys after they'd been scalded, or dipped into a barrel of hot water.
“We started with the wings, grabbing the bigger feathers off the turkeys and then working our way toward the inner parts of the body,” Harper said.
Eighth grader Anna Rigsby helped gut the turkeys and clean off the glands and the inside of each turkey’s cavity after the feathers, neck and feet had been removed.
“I also thought that I would be more saddened by the whole process,” said Rigsby, who is the apprentice for the school’s pig business. “But in reality, it's just like what you eat and so I didn't really think of them as like pets or anything. I learned that it’s just life.”
Mattice said programs such as the school’s turkey farm are essential for preserving the agricultural traditions in communities such as Smith Valley. The future of Nevada’s agriculture industry has some worried as the state is seeing a wave of farmers retiring without enough young farmers stepping in to replace them.
“To be able to support [agriculture] within the school setting and enrich it, I think, is very valuable,” he said.
Processing day ended with all 39 turkeys sold, most of which were preordered ahead of Monday. The demand for the turkeys was so great that neither DeChambeau, Pimental or Mattice got to buy one for themselves.
“We had a very full list of people, and even then we had to turn people away,” Pimental said. “Hopefully next year I will be able to get one before they are all gone, but it was very successful and wouldn't have it any other way.”
Photographer David Calvert contributed to this report.