Imagine a garden with no weeds, quick growth, a lengthy harvest season, and the ability to thrive in all sorts of weather. Students at the Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania, are now utilizing this growing trend of raising produce indoors using hydroponics.
Growing plants hydroponically — that is, without soil and in a fertilized irrigation solution — is not a new concept. Sir Francis Bacon wrote about hydroponics as early as his 1627 work, “Sylva Sylvanum.” But, the technology of hydroponic farming has come of age in the 21st century.
Dr. Jason Smith, MHS’s Horticultural Center instructional advisor, has overseen the development and implementation of the school’s hydroponics program, which started back in 2018.
After beginning by growing lettuce, kale and herbs, a system upgrade in 2019 has enabled the school’s students to grow strawberries and vine crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
MHS had roots in agriculture thanks to its founder, chocolate magnate Milton Hershey, who in 1909 chartered the Hershey Industrial School for orphaned boys. Its students lived on farms scattered around the perimeters of the town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, where they did barn chores and learned about growing crops and animal husbandry, among other vocational skills.
Although MHS is now a co-ed institution whose students live in suburban-style group homes, agriculture remains an important part of their education. Smith said that offering hydroponics is a way to broaden the school’s agriculture program and provide further exposure to agricultural-related careers. Their existing soil-based production of vegetables and flowers, along with orchard and greenhouse experiences, have now been supplemented with the hydroponic technology to allow an increasing number of vegetables to be grown commercially in indoor environments.
Smith said that, while most student learning experiences occur during the school year between fall and spring, the prime growing season for produce raised in soil by traditional methods takes place during the summer, when school is closed. Thus, he said, introducing hydroponics has allowed a more robust educational experience while classes are in session.
Smith oversaw the retrofitting of some existing MHS greenhouses into hydroponic-friendly growing spaces. The greenhouses were updated with LED grow lights, support systems and irrigation systems with nutrient flow tracks. The tomato greenhouse comprises 1,000 square feet, while the strawberry greenhouse occupies 750 square feet. Basil and lettuce are grown in 150 square feet of headhouse space in the greenhouse’s potting room.
Introducing Students to Hydroponic Growing
Although becoming involved with hydroponic growing is not a requirement for MHS students, it is integrated into agricultural career path courses, made available as an elective, and offered as an extra-curricular club experience. Smith also reaches a large number of students indirectly through working closely with other MHS teachers to integrate agriculture, horticulture and hydroponics learning into their specific coursework areas. These efforts are in keeping with the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) concept of facilitating interdisciplinary real-world education.
Smith teaches hydroponics to two classes of eight to 15 high school students and oversees the activities of about five hydroponic student interns at any given time. In addition, he and one assistant also offer eighth-graders an introduction to hydroponics.
Smith has been able to reach elementary and middle school students, too, by inviting members of entire student homes to visit the hydroponics facilities after school hours and allowing these youngsters to help with age-appropriate tasks.
The end goal of any learning process is its practical application, and Smith realized that hydroponics offered the opportunity to grow high-value produce during the off-season. In turn, this allowed production targeted to specific niche markets. By considering what kinds of produce are hard to come by in winter and spring, Smith recognized that “marketing great-tasting tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries” could create a reliable outlet for his students’ hydroponic produce.
Initially, Smith thought the new hydroponic produce would be a good fit for the student-run Milton Hershey School Project Market. It had already been selling student-grown fruits, vegetables, flowers and ornamentals to provide both a horticultural and business experience. Although approximately 20% of the hydroponics program’s output is sold — with any seconds or excess lettuce donated to area food banks — the remaining 80% has found another real-world outlet, and a world-class one, at that.
Student growers in the MHS hydroponics program take great pride in knowing their produce is being used for three dining options at nearby four-star resort, The Hotel Hershey, including restaurants Trevi 5, Harvest and The Circular. Forging a partnership, The Hotel Hershey’s executive sous chef Mario Oliverio and MHS’s Smith also have coordinated efforts to feature MHS student-grown produce in dishes served at these three hotel eateries.
The quantity of hydroponic produce sold to The Hotel Hershey nearly year-round now includes 3 to 5 pounds of basil, 40 to 60 pounds of tomatoes, 10 to 20 pounds of cucumbers and 15 to 25 pounds of strawberries, per week. This freshly harvested produce finds its way into salads, sandwiches, bruschettas, sauces and pizza served in the hotel’s three dining venues.
In addition, MHS-grown strawberries are incorporated into the signature parfaits at The Hotel Hershey’s new Chef’s Market café.
Connecting to the Consumer
Oliverio is enthusiastic about the synergy between the MHS hydroponics program and The Hershey Hotel. Depending on the time of year, about 10 to 15% of his kitchens’ tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce come from MHS, delivered to the hotel’s receiving team by Smith. Aside from the excellent quality of the hydroponic produce, Oliverio said he appreciates that this direct delivery system reduces “a lot of extra handling,” which provides “a truly fresh product” with extended shelf life.
Oliverio is a big fan of the tomatoes, which he calls “such beautiful fruits.” He especially enjoys showcasing different tomato varieties to the hotel’s guests. Whenever possible, Oliverio and his servers like to call diners’ attention to the link between the MHS hydroponics students and their produce served as part of the hotel’s cuisine.
A recent printed menu at The Circular included “shrimp and grits” and listed “Milton Hershey School tomatoes” among its ingredients. Likewise, “Milton Hershey student-grown tomatoes” are featured in the menu description of the panzanella salad served at Trevi 5. This makes a great talking point with the hotel’s guests.
During a recent chef’s table for a party of 12, Oliverio took the opportunity to highlight the MHS hydroponic tomatoes used in one of the courses. He said that the diners were both impressed and intrigued by the connection between the school and the hotel.
Aside from the techniques learned while raising hydroponic produce, and the pride that students feel in growing restaurant-quality food, there remains one additional outcome these young MHS growers are looking forward to. They will soon be able to taste-testing the “fruits of their labors” at The Hotel Hershey. This final real-world connection in farm to table production was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, but it is a day participating students are eagerly awaiting. Oliverio is sure they won’t be disappointed.