Redmond School District in Oregon is located in a fairly rural area of the state where it’s not uncommon to find students engaging in Future Farmers of America (FFA) activities. One of these is raising hogs for showing and sale at the annual county fair.
Unfortunately, one of the risks of this activity is that not all hogs meet the criteria for showing at the fair because they are underweight or don’t meet other technical qualifications. In such a case, the student that raised the hog often finds him- or herself stuck with an animal that had already cost a fair amount to raise and which is impractical or impossible to keep. So it ends up getting sold for a price that doesn’t begin to recoup the investment made in time and dollars.
But what if there were a guarantee that an animal would be still be bought at a fair price even if it were rejected from the fair for technical reasons?
That’s what the Redmond School District’s department of nutrition services did this past year by purchasing three hogs raised by district students that didn’t meet the requirements of the Deschutes County Fair.
The district’s gesture certainly eased the financial burden on the students as the cost of raising a hog of that size and type can cost $500 to $1,000 in feeding, sheltering, license fees and vet bills, according to Redmond Nutrition Services Director Keith Fiedler.
As for his meal program, “it provides us good, high-quality local product,” he says, as well as greater diversity of cuts than is typical in a school foodservice program.
A nearby USDA-certified slaughterhouse took care of processing the animals into usable cuts, from sausage and rib racks to tenderloins and prime roasts. In all, the three hogs yielded 800 to 900 pounds of meat of various cuts, Fiedler estimates.
The meat appeared first in sausage served on the breakfast line in December, followed by a chili verde from a recipe “that’s as good as you’re going to get anywhere, and I’m from Arizona so I know what its supposed to taste like,” Fiedler laughs. Signage at the stations informed students about where the pork they were eating came from.
A Szechuan style pork dish is scheduled to follow in January, and “among those three dishes, we’ll probably run out of the pork,” Feidler estimates.
Redmond paid the students $4 a pound for the animals, about twice what they would expect to get after rejection by the fair but defensible for the district given that it was getting whole animals, prime parts included, instead of only more economical cuts.
“I could buy a lot of different grades and cuts of pork and I can pay as little as $1.65 for a pound of pork, but that’s not pork I want to make a beautiful chili verde out of,” Fiedler explains. “That’s not a pork I want to do an Asian sliced pork roast out of and serve it to kids, so as far as pound for pound, dollar for dollar, for the grade of the product I’m getting it’s about what I would pay commercially. It’s not a loss.”
The initiative also helps puts some spark in the menu, he adds.
“We wouldn’t normally be able to serve spare ribs. But you know what, we can have a spare rib special as an entrée at the high school level one day and it’s something that would be nice.”
One thing Fiedler does know is that he wants to build on this initiative to expand his local product inventory while encouraging students to participate in FFA programs.
“I think the idea is really to build infrastructure for this kind of event so that we can have a predictable product chain in the future with predictable products, and also so that we can have [aspiring] FFA students say, ‘Yeah, I’ll go ahead and try [to raise an animal] because I know I have this [alternative sale] option.’”
Plus, Fiedler adds, it provides the students with “a real economic understanding of the process, so…they know that if they’re not diligent they lose the ability to sell it because if it comes to us unacceptable we’re not going to buy it.”
The purchase of the three hogs this fall was too small to be subject to bid regulations but that may not always be the case if the program expands, Fielder recognizes.
“It’s feasible that at some point these kinds of purchases could start nosing up over purchase thresholds,” he muses. “Then what we’d do is put out a request for quotes and what the FFA groups would do is treat it as a quote situation.”
All photos courtesy of Redmond School District