Animal sciences alumna emulates mentor in job at Virginia Tech meat lab
by JAMIE CREAMER
Jordan Wicks’ eureka moment came one Sunday afternoon in 2008, on a road in Carbondale, Illinois. Wicks, a Southern Illinois University sophomore who had yet to decide on a major, was driving past SIU’s research and teaching farms near campus when she spotted eight or 10 dairy calves wandering aimlessly down the highway.
Wicks stopped the car and, harking back to her somewhat limited experience with livestock as an Illinois 4-H and FFA member, rounded up the calves and herded them back to the safety of the barn and into their pens. Talk about an adrenaline rush. And a lightbulb turning on.
“Without even knowing what type of job I could get when I graduated or any of the career options, I went the next day and declared my major as animal sciences,” Wicks says.
Early on, the rural Illinois native assumed she’d wind up working on the live-animal side of the cattle industry because she just flat-out enjoyed that aspect.
“But the further I got into the program, I knew that I wasn’t going back to run a family farm, and I wasn’t going to head West and be a cowgirl, so I began leaning toward meat science,” she says. “I knew that in meat science, there were a million jobs available on all different levels, all over the world.
“I figured I would never be without a job if I went that route.”
Wicks was in her junior year at SIU when she decided to take a long weekend and visit her best friend from college, who had graduated with her master’s in 2008 and landed a job as a student recruiter at some school down South that Wicks had never heard of. Some place called Auburn University. The friend was Amanda Martin, who today is coordinator of student recruitment and alumni relations for the College of Agriculture but at the time was in Auburn’s Department of Poultry Science.
An eye-opening weekend
Martin had to work on Wicks’ first-ever Friday in the Loveliest Village, but she knew her friend was toying with the idea of pursing a master’s degree so, true to the recruiter within in her, she arranged for Wicks to meet with animal sciences associate professor Christy Bratcher to talk about graduate school. One meeting was all it took for Wicks.
“Dr. Bratcher showed me around and talked about the graduate program at Auburn and future job possibilities,” Wicks says. “I knew from the moment I met her that she was going to take me places and do whatever she could to help me reach my career goals.
“I was right.”
Truth be told, Wicks wasn’t exactly an undergraduate superstar at the time, but Bratcher decided to give her an opportunity to prove her potential as a graduate student.
“Jordan came to Auburn and worked for me that summer before her senior year at Southern Illinois, if for no other reason than to get experience and improve her résumé,” Bratcher says.
Wicks’ 40-hour workweek for the summer included 20 hours in Bratcher’s lab assisting on research projects and the other 20 at the Lambert-Powell Meats Lab, working under the oversight of Auburn animal sciences alum and lab manager Barney Wilborn. Learning about the research process was invaluable, Wicks says, but working at the Meats Lab was downright incredible, not only during her trial run over the summer but when she returned in fall 2010 as a meat science master’s student under her trusted mentor, Bratcher.
“Within that meats lab, I learned not only about animal and meat processing, but about food safety and sanitation, product formulation, catering, critical thinking, leadership and the list goes on,” she says. “But what was amazing about the place was that it honestly prepared me for my first job right out of school, as well as for my job today.”
A humdinger of a job
That first job she mentions? It was a doozy. But, hey, she asked for it.
“During my final semester of graduate school, I, for some reason, was hell-bent on running my own meat processing plant,” she says. “Dr. Bratcher knew that and told me about the opening.”
So it was that Wicks, just days after receiving her master’s in meat science during Auburn’s spring 2012 commencement ceremonies, wound up “in the middle of nowhere, Alabama,” at an abandoned emu-processing facility.
Her job: to convert the facility in Eva into a plant for processing pasture-raised, heritage breeds of pigs into tender, juicy pork that would be served not only at five-star restaurants across the Southeast but also at Birmingham-based Jim ’N Nick’s Bar-B-Q restaurants. The latter’s included because Nick Pihakis, Jim ’N Nick’s co-founder, was a partner in the new processing plant, which he and collaborators had dubbed the Fatback Pig Project.
As plant manager and sole employee, Wicks spent a long, lonely and exhausting six months working from daylight to dusk, cleaning out scrap metal and junk enough to fill three 30-foot dumpsters. She also bought supplies and equipment, helped with construction design and even some of the construction, and got the facility spic-and-span. By early February, Fatback Pig Project opened for business.
“Getting that place up and running was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, a huge challenge right out of school,” Wicks says. “But I knew that with my education from Auburn and my determined attitude, I could it.
“I knew I had all the support in the world from my family and friends and from Barney and Dr. Bratcher,” she says. “I was not going to let them or myself down, so with hard work and countless phone calls to Barney every week, I did it.”
That success may have been what prompted Evergreen-based Conecuh Sausage Co. to come courting, but whatever its reason, the company succeeded in luring Wicks away from Fatback Pig Project for a position as Conecuh’s food quality and safety manager.
At the plant, Wicks focused on modernizing the company’s food safety system and was responsible for ensuring that the final sausage products were of the highest quality. Conecuh was, and is, “a great plant with great people and a great team,” she says, but her time there would be brief because a job that practically had her name written on it opened up, and she knew she’d forever regret it if she didn’t at least apply for the position.
The job was with Virginia Tech’s Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences. Specifically, the department was looking for a manager for its Meat Science Center—Virginia Tech’s version of Auburn’s Lambert-Powell Meats Lab. In Wicks’ view, that would be the ultimate experience, and for one major reason.
“I wanted to be like Barney,” she says. “I wanted the chance to work with students and help them learn about meat science and the meat industry in a learn-by-doing environment. It was because of the great people I had met and worked with along the way that I was able to have a career in the meat industry, and I wanted to have the same impact on students as Dr. Bratcher and Barney had on me.”
She interviewed for and was offered the position and in August 2014 moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, to start her dream job. And so far, it has been just that. Wicks is in her element.
“I’m able to work with students, process meat, do research and work on my Ph.D. in meat science, one class a semester,” she says. She hopes to eventually become a tenured faculty member, possibly at Virginia Tech.
“Or, of course, I’d always love to come back to Auburn,” she says.