Surging egg prices have turned California high school students’ afterschool agriculture project into a multi-disciplinary lesson in biology, economics, and business management.
Students at Madera South High School in Madera, Calif., started tending to a flock of chickens a little more than a year ago, selling the eggs they laid to community members as a way to learn about animal care and the food industry.
But, as U.S. egg prices have mounted in recent months—in part because of an avian flu outbreak—the students have been able to undercut the prices of nearby supermarkets, where a dozen eggs sell for as much as $8.
Even after raising prices from $3 to $5 a dozen, the students have a waiting list for egg pick-up every week from eager locals who sign up in advance.
Now, they are making plans to expand their flock, weighing big questions about unpredictable fluctuations in the supply chain, and learning interdisciplinary lessons they can transfer to other areas of school and life.
“In my 23 years of teaching, this is a unique experience,” said agriculture teacher Kristin Sheehan, who leads the egg program. “We sell out within minutes. We can’t keep up with the demand.”
Building purpose through hands-on work
The project demonstrates how career and technical education programs can give students hands-on insights into topics like supply and demand and how global disruptions have downstream effects that can otherwise seem abstract.
State officials and the Biden administration have recently promoted the growth and evolution of CTE programs to meet the demands of a changing economy and workforce. Such programs give students both technical skills that apply to specific careers, like automotive repair, in addition to “employability skills,” like problem-solving and working on teams that can transfer to other academic subjects.
Federal and state evaluations have found that CTE students, including those in agriculture programs, are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to enroll in postsecondary education than their peers who do not participate in such programs.
Supporters of agriculture education say it is particularly engaging for students. Rapid changes in climate, consumer habits, and scientific understanding give the work fresh relevance. And working with animals and food crops can quickly connect students to a sense of purpose in their work, Sheehan said.
At the 2,800-student Madera South High School, for example, students have a 20-acre working farm just outside their classroom doors northwest of Fresno. Agriculture students raise and tend to horses, cows, sheep, and pigs; breed small animals like guinea pigs; harvest flowers for floriculture class; and grow mandarin oranges that are served in the school’s cafeteria.
The egg project, which now involves eight students, started a little more than a year ago with 30 leghorn chickens. Over the summer, the students added 15 Rhode Island chickens to the flock.
Junior Susana Lara, who helps tend to the chickens, said the work has helped confirm her interest in working in animal nutrition after graduation.
“It helps me understand everything about how food affects the animals and how they are nurtured,” she said.
A ‘hens-on’ lesson in a scrambled supply chain
Should students do more to keep up with demand? It’s a tough question, Sheehan said.
U.S. egg prices increased about 60 percent in 2022, reaching record highs in December. That was in part because of disruptions caused by an avian flu outbreak. But prices began dropping again this month, CNBC reports.
It takes about six months for new hens to start laying eggs, Sheehan said.
As prices surged in the winter, students engaged in some long-term planning as they considered adding even more hens: Will demand in six months be enough to justify the additional birds? Can the small crew that tends to the hens before and after school keep up with the increased workload involved with feeding and cleaning up after more animals?
The students voted “yes.” Even if egg prices return to pre-surge levels, they believe improved marketing and options like drive-up service can help sustain demand.
So they bought another 30 hens. And now they wait to see if their bet—and their business plan—will pay off.
In the mean time, other classes are learning from the animals, too.
Students in an agriculture enterprise class will review the egg project business plan and give their peers tips on marketing, expenses, and anticipated demand. Animal science students learned to do blood draws and tests on the hens.
The students currently sell about five dozen eggs a week, and they expect that number to increase after the winter months, when hens typically produce fewer eggs, and again when their new birds begin laying.
Madera South students said the avian flu outbreak has provided a chance to learn and shift strategies, as they work to keep the hens separate from geese in a nearby pond to reduce the risk of possible disease spread.
“I found it very interesting how most people didn’t really know about [the egg project], but then as months went by, more people wanted more,” said junior Joanna Santos, who wants to be a veterinarian. “The more they start producing, the more we are able to give to others.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as A Lesson in Eggonomics: The Story of Soaring Prices and Industrious High Schoolers