HERSHEY, Pa. — As back-breaking as farming is, it’s rare to come across a field worker encased in a clunky, rigid back brace. That is, until you meet Chris Dobson, 18, one of the interns at Milton Hershey School’s Project Market. Certainly his broken vertebras were not caused by his work at the market, but he doesn’t let his injury discourage him from helping customers or learning about the business of agriculture either.
Nestled along Route 322 at 726 Governor Road, Hershey, Pa., in Dauphin County, the Project Market sits across from the fields that have grown heavy with blueberries, peaches and corn — the market’s three biggest sellers. The farm market building is an old bull barn and is part of the original Hershey estate, as is the 7-acre apple and peach orchard. The total acreage of land used by the Project Market equals 50 acres, with about 35 acres in production of fruit and vegetables such as squash, broccoli and cabbage.
What makes this market so different from the hundreds that dot Pennsylvania are the kids involved. The Project Market internship is not limited to those with agriculture-related classes in their student schedules or those with farm experience. Rather, the seven interns at the market have little or no experience out in the field and that’s what makes their time at the market all the more rewarding.
The Milton Hershey School is funded by a trust established by the Hershey chocolate tycoon himself and his wife, Catherine, in 1909. Children who come from low-income, in-need families can attend school and live on campus at no cost. The Agricultural and Environmental Education internships, of which Project Market is included, offer students a chance to expand their horizons and get their hands dirty while gaining valuable work skills.
“Most of these kids came from urban areas,” said Nicole Wamsley, media relations manager at Milton Hershey School, about their unfamiliarity with rural life.
For instance, Wamsley said that during the summer, some of the students are startled by the eerily, continuous sound that is so well-known to locals. “They’ve never heard cicadas,” she observed.
They have, however, eaten most of the products they now harvest. One of the goals of the internship is to teach the students how food begins as a crop before becoming dinner. The students are not involved with planting, partly due to being in classes during planting times. Instead, the school has a cooperative relationship with Seedway LLC, which evaluates and runs trials of vegetable seed varieties at <\n>Hershey. The students harvest the fruit and vegetables to sell at the market. The opportunity works more as a paid first job than an introduction to the agricultural industry, but spending eight weeks — the official duration of the internship — in the sun and seeing the fruits of their labor has been known to turn a few students toward farming.
“A young lady graduated last year who was one of our interns,” said Crystal Huff, AEE director. “She had wanted to be a dental hygienist all along.”
After six months of being involved with horticulture activities, the student changed her career path.
“She (liked) what she did and she wanted to be outside. Sometimes students do like (farming),” Huff said. “On the other hand, we had some students who went to be a vet and found out it wasn’t what they wanted to do.”
Besides learning where their food comes from, farm market students gain skills in handling money, interacting with the public, working as part of a team and an understanding of the difference between wholesale and retail.
“It’s rough out there,” Huff. said. “You still have to get the crop in, with maybe one person. It’s definitely a bonding experience. They don’t know each other when they first start, but then we see athletes working with bookworms.”
The students aren’t allowed to get too comfortable, however. About 50 percent of students apply to work at the market year after year, but they are encouraged to seek employment elsewhere to gain broader experiences and more confidence in various fields.
As the program director, Huff has been grateful for the chance to watch the kids grow through the program.
“We form relationships with the kids,” she said. “We are an AEE family; we will help you out. And kids do come back to us. They see us in the halls in the school and we talk.”
On a mid-afternoon summer day, Joe Miller, the instructional advisor of the Project Market, can be found in the peach orchard of about 400 trees, instructing five of the interns on how to harvest produce.
But they already know the drill. Analyzing with a learned eye, Devyn Morrison, 15, scrutinizes every fuzzy, orange globe with a wrinkled brow before placing it into his basket. The next selection is not as lucky as it makes contact with the ground with a soft thud. Miller said that not every piece of produce is sellable. Even a peach with a brown spot the size of a corn kernel is passed over for bigger and better peaches.
Devyn, of Lancaster County, Pa., is the only student at the market with past farm experience. The 10th-grader once picked strawberries for a time before applying for the farm market internship. He wanted to learn how to grow and maintain produce as well as keep himself busy during the summer months.
“It helps working with other people,” he said about how the internship has helped him prepare for the future. He already has plans to attend college as part of a graphic design program.
“They come in (to the program) not knowing how to interact with other people,” Miller said. “We see how they interact with adults, even with complaints or complimenting. We see how they grow and adapt.”
Chris Dobson learned to adapt to something that farmers know all too well: time.
“(The internship) showed me what I needed to learn was timing,” Dobson said during a recent interview. “I learned a little bit about Olympic running, too. I was late three times.”
He said that he enjoys working with others and, though his future involves a two-year plumbing and electrical program, there are hints that he might return to agriculture of some sort. “I don’t like paperwork, so this (internship) is a good fit,” he said.
With about 13,000 items sold last year, the Project Market at Hershey had a very good growing season. The abundance of rain this year has made the fields muddy but no major mold problems have been reported. There is sometimes too much to sell. Excess produce is taken to supply centers for dinners or lunches, or donated to food banks. The interns also can take home produce to cook for themselves, such as a favorite melon known as “honey lopes,” which Dobson said he is now “hooked” on.
The Project Market is opened on Monday and Wednesdays through Fridays, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays are closed because that is when the students are visiting other farms as a group field trip. To participate in the AEE program, applicants must be at least 14 years old and a current student at Milton Hershey School. Each applicant must submit an essay and a letter of recommendation as well as complete a formal interview. Other than the Project Market, internships are available as part of the AEE program at the Environmental Center, the Spartan Ice Cream Center, a floriculture business, the Animal Center and the Equine Center.
For more information on the Project Market, visit www.MHS-pa.org.<\c> cutlines:
Photo by Nicole Herman
Linzell Robinson, 15, left, and Chris Dobson, 18, clerk for customers inside the Project Market.
Photo by Nicole Herman
Sweet corn for sale at the Project Market, Hershey, Pa.
Photo by Nicole Herman
Chris Dobson, 18, eats a honey lope, one of his favorite fruits at the Project Market.