Chicken adoption program hatches free-range learning

Adopt a Heritage Chicken program wins Community Leader Award for involving community in saving rare breeds.

(Edmonton) If you've ever wanted to adopt a hundred-year-old chicken, have we got a program for you.

OK, the chicken might not be 100 years old, but its DNA is, and preserving it in heritage lines can help shed new light on the relationship between biodiversity and nutrition. And that valuable genetic material-lost over the years in commercial strains selected for productivity and efficiency-is exceedingly rare.

Maintaining these lines, however, was becoming a financial burden for the U of A's Poultry Research Centre on South Campus, costing some $75,000 annually to maintain the coops. So in 2013 the centre's business director, Agnes Kulinsky, came up with a novel idea: offer up the chickens for adoption.

Since then, hundreds of community members have signed on to sponsor heritage chickens-with names like White Leghorn, Brown Leghorn, Light Sussex, Barred Plymouth Rock and New Hampshire-with a donation of $50 to $500 depending on the chicken. The centre raises and houses the chickens, and sponsors pick up a dozen eggs from their adopted fowl every two weeks.

But as Martin Zuidhof, director of the Poultry Research Centre, reminds us, "The program is about so much more than eggs," as it educates the community about poultry research in a world where people care more about quality and nutrition, but are increasingly disconnected from food production.

And for that outreach effort, the Adopt a Heritage Chicken program has garnered the U of A's Community Leader Award, given out annually to an individual or team of university employees, post-doctoral fellows or students who have made a valuable contribution to bridging the university's commitment to learning, discovery and citizenship with the community. The program will be recognized at a ceremony at Edmonton City Hall at 12:30 p.m. May 14, along with two other recipients: Jack Francis, winner of the UAlberta Advocate Award; and Candace Nykiforuk, Community Scholar Award winner. Everyone is invited to attend the awards ceremony.

"We're so grateful to be recognized for this award," says Zuidhof. "We did this to conserve genetics, but we also try to maintain a culture of reaching out and connecting with the community, of uplifting the people. To be recognized for it was just an unexpected bonus."

With its online presence, the program educates consumers about "where the food comes from, the life of the chickens, and egg production following the principles of 'free-range learning' advocated by our group," says Frank Robinson, a member of the poultry research team.

"All of our communications with the community supporters (e-newsletters, blog and Facebook) include accurate messaging about the poultry industry and aim to eliminate food myths."

The adoption program is part of a larger public education initiative on the part of the Poultry Research Centre, which holds several educational events with displays and discussions about eggs, chickens, genetic preservation and food safety. At a recent Fun on the Farm Tour event for children in the Heritage Chicken Program, for example, about 100 visited the university farm to learn about where their food comes from.

Since the adoption program began, it has grown to include 400 members. Over the past year it has collected $60,000, "enough to maintain our lines, when otherwise we probably would have lost them," says Zuidhof. "The program has just been a tremendous success."