Milton Hershey Horticulture Students Explore Hydroponics | training

Imagine a weed-free garden, rapid growth, a long harvest season, and the ability to thrive in any weather. Students at Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania are now capitalizing on this growing trend of growing hydroponic products indoors.

Growing plants hydroponically – without soil and in a fertilized irrigation solution – is not a new concept. Sir Francis Bacon wrote about hydroponics as early as 1627 in his work “Sylva Sylvanum”. But hydroponic farming technology has come of age in the 21st century.

Dr. Jason Smith, Teaching Advisor at the MHS Horticultural Center, oversaw the development and implementation of the school’s hydroponics program, which began in 2018.

After starting growing lettuce, kale, and herbs, a system upgrade in 2019 allowed students at the school to grow strawberries and vine plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.

MHS had its roots in agriculture thanks to its founder, chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey, who founded the Hershey Industrial School for orphaned boys in 1909. Students lived on farms scattered around the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, where they did stallion jobs and learned about growing crops and raising livestock, among other job skills.

Although the MHS is now a mixed institution with students living in suburban style group houses, agriculture remains an important part of its education. Smith said the hydroponics offering is a way to expand the school’s farming program and provide further insight into farming professions. Their existing soil-based production of vegetables and flowers, as well as experiences in orchards and greenhouses, have now been augmented with hydroponic technology to commercially grow an increasing number of vegetables indoors.

Smith said that while most of the student learning experiences during the school year occur between fall and spring, the main growing season for products grown in soil using traditional methods is in the summer, when the school is closed. Hence, he said, the introduction of hydroponics has enabled a more robust educational experience while classes are in progress.

Smith oversaw the conversion of some of the existing MHS greenhouses into hydroponics-friendly grow rooms. The greenhouses have been updated with LED grow lights, support systems, and irrigation systems with nutrient flow trails. The tomato greenhouse covers 1,000 square meters while the strawberry greenhouse covers 750 square meters. Basil and lettuce are grown on 150 square meters of head house area in the pot space of the greenhouse.

Introducing students to hydroponic cultivation

Working with hydroponics is not a prerequisite for MHS students, but is integrated into agricultural vocational training courses, offered as an elective and offered as an extracurricular club experience. Smith also indirectly reaches large numbers of students by working closely with other MHS teachers to integrate agriculture, horticulture and hydroponics learning into their specific course areas. These efforts are in line with the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) concept, which enables interdisciplinary practice-oriented education.

Smith teaches hydroponics in two classes of eight to 15 high school students and oversees the activities of approximately five hydroponics student interns at any one time. He and an assistant also offer eighth graders an introduction to hydroponics.

Smith was also able to reach elementary and middle school students by inviting members of entire student homes to visit the hydroponics facilities after school and have these teenagers help with age-appropriate tasks.

The ultimate goal of any learning process is its practical application, and Smith realized that hydroponics provided an opportunity to grow high quality products in the off-season. This in turn enabled targeted production on certain niche markets. By pondering what types of products are hard to come by in winter and spring, Smith realized that “marketing great-tasting tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries” could create reliable sales for his students’ hydroponic products.

Initially, Smith thought the new hydroponic products would be a good fit for the Milton Hershey School’s student-run project market. It already sold fruits, vegetables, flowers, and ornamental plants that were grown by students for both a horticultural and business experience. Although roughly 20% of the hydroponics program’s production is sold – with every second or excess lettuce being donated to local food banks – the remaining 80% has found another real market, and that is a world-class sale.

Student growers in the MHS hydroponics program take great pride in their products being used in three restaurants at the nearby four-star resort, The Hotel Hershey, including Trevi 5, Harvest and The Circular. To forge a partnership, Hotel Hershey’s Executive Sous Chef Mario Oliverio and MHS’s Smith have also coordinated efforts to use products grown by MHS in dishes grown by students at these three MHS hotel restaurants.

The amount of hydroponic products sold to the Hershey Hotel for most of the year now includes 3 to 5 pounds of basil, 40 to 60 pounds of tomatoes, 10 to 20 pounds of cucumber, and 15 to 25 pounds of strawberries per week. This freshly harvested product finds its way into salads, sandwiches, bruschettas, sauces and pizzas served in the hotel’s three restaurants.

MHS-grown strawberries are also incorporated into the characteristic parfaits in the new Café Chef’s Market at the Hotel Hershey.

Connection to the consumer

Oliverio is excited about the synergy between the MHS Hydroponics program and The Hershey Hotel. Depending on the season, around 10 to 15 percent of the tomatoes, strawberries and salads in his kitchens come from MHS, which Smith delivers to the hotel’s reception team. Aside from the excellent quality of the hydroponic products, Oliverio appreciates that this direct delivery system reduces “a lot of extra handling” which results in “a really fresh product” with an extended shelf life.

Oliverio is a big fan of the tomatoes, which he calls “such beautiful fruits”. He especially likes to show the hotel guests different types of tomatoes. Whenever possible, Oliverio and his waiters want to make guests aware of the link between the MHS hydroponics students and their products served as part of the hotel kitchen.

A recently printed menu at The Circular said “Shrimp and Grits” and listed “Milton Hershey School Tomatoes” among the ingredients. “Milton Hershey student-grown tomatoes” can also be found in the menu description of the panzanella salad that is served at Trevi 5.

At a recent Chef’s Table for a group of 12, Oliverio took the opportunity to highlight the MHS hydroponic tomatoes used in one of the courses. He said the guests were impressed and intrigued by the connection between the school and the hotel.

Aside from the techniques learned while growing hydroponic products and the pride students take in growing restaurant-quality food, there is one more result these young MHS growers look forward to. They will soon be able to taste the “fruits of their labor” at The Hotel Hershey. This final real-world connection in farm-to-table production has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but it’s a day that the participating students are eagerly awaiting. Oliverio is sure that you will not be disappointed.

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Lettuce and basil are grown hydroponically in this headhouse area next to the Milton Hershey School’s hydroponic greenhouses.

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Jason Smith, Teaching Advisor for the Horticultural Center at Milton Hershey School, directs the school’s hydroponics program, which works with Hotel Hershey to provide fresh produce to the hotel’s three restaurants.

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

White irrigation pipes provide a fertilized irrigation solution to these Albion Day Neutral Strawberries, grown without soil in a hydroponic greenhouse at Milton Hershey School.

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Smith oversees a student in one of the Milton Hershey School’s greenhouses that has been converted to hydroponically grow crops like these strawberries.

Hershey Hotel

Hershey Hotel

Built by Milton Hershey in the 1930s, Hotel Hershey is a world-class resort hotel overlooking the city of Hershey. The three restaurants and a cafe, led by Chef Mario Oliverio, use hydroponic products grown by students from the nearby Milton Hershey School.



Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Lettuce and basil are grown hydroponically in this headhouse area next to the Milton Hershey School’s hydroponic greenhouses.



Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Jason Smith, Teaching Advisor for the Horticultural Center at Milton Hershey School, directs the school’s hydroponics program, which works with Hotel Hershey to provide fresh produce to the hotel’s three restaurants.



Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

White irrigation pipes provide a fertilized irrigation solution to these Albion Day Neutral Strawberries, grown without soil in a hydroponic greenhouse at Milton Hershey School.



Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Hydroponics at Milton Hershey School

Smith oversees a student in one of the Milton Hershey School’s greenhouses that has been converted to hydroponically grow crops like these strawberries.



Hershey Hotel

Hershey Hotel

Built by Milton Hershey in the 1930s, Hotel Hershey is a world-class resort hotel overlooking the city of Hershey. The three restaurants and a cafe, led by Chef Mario Oliverio, use hydroponic products grown by students from the nearby Milton Hershey School.

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