A Day In the Life
It was 5 a.m. on a Saturday when Aaron Harris’s alarm clock stirred him from a peaceful slumber. He prepared himself for the day, then dashed over to the farm with Luke Graver. Together, the students began cleaning animal pens. Next, they fetched dairy and beef cows from the northwest barn, fed and watered the animals, and tidied up their pens. Moving on to the crops, the pair swept, tidied, and watered some more. By the time it was 8 a.m., a few curious visitors were beginning to trickle in.
This was just the beginning of a day in the life of these two interns for PennAg Industries at the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show.
The Farm Show Experience
Harris and Graver, both seniors majoring in agribusiness management, spent ten days as barn managers for PennAg’s Today’s Agriculture exhibit at the Farm Show, which opened Jan. 4.
An advocacy group that represents more than 600 agricultural businesses in Pennsylvania, PennAg works with political leaders to make business-friendly recommendations on policies that impact Pennsylvania’s agriculture, such as those regarding animal welfare and health, food safety, and diagnostics.
At the Pennsylvania Farm Show, the group’s goal is to positively represent the state’s agriculture industry to the public, providing visitors with a look into the life of a farmer. The group also showcases the delicious results of a thriving agriculture industry with its ever-popular food court booth, which offers a number of products from Pennsylvania businesses.
Harris and Graver spent the bulk of their time as interns caring for animals, looking after crops, and assisting industry professionals who volunteered a few hours of their day to help Farm Show visitors connect with modern agriculture.
Casey Hall, a junior majoring in biological engineering, also helped. As a media intern for PennAg, her duties included documenting the display, its animals, crops, and visitors; promoting the exhibit with interactive use of social media; and entertaining visitors such as student groups, political figures, and industry figures.
According to Chris Herr, executive vice president of PennAg Industries, the group relies heavily on Penn State students to staff and promote its work at the Today’s Agriculture exhibit. "Through their internships, these students are given opportunities to talk to the public and interact with leaders in agriculture," he said.
Cost and Benefit
Although the Farm Show experience makes for a long week for the students, who can spend from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. managing the exhibit and working with guests, Harris, Graver, and Hall agreed that the work was well worth it.
Throughout the day, the students had the opportunity to interact with Governor Tom Corbett, Lieutenant Governor Jim Cawley, Chief of Staff Leslie Gromis Baker, and U.S. Senators Bob Casey Jr. and Pat Toomey, as well as 40 to 50 state legislators, four cabinet secretaries, and several Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates.
When it came to representing agriculture to the average visitor, the students encountered additional pleasant surprises.
"A lot of people had a background in agriculture, and we had some good conversations about that," Harris said. "For example, one person said their grandfather grew up on a dairy farm, but they didn’t know much about the dairy farm of today. I was able to walk them through the changes over the years and bring them up to speed with how the industry works today."
Graver added, "One person wanted to adopt a few laying hens, and they were asking me questions about caring for chickens, such as which breeds are best for laying eggs and what kind of feed they should eat. Another person wanted to start raising and breeding pigs and had a lot of very specific, thoughtful questions. I was expecting very surface-level questions."
During her time at the Farm Show, Hall met with leaders in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and said she was impressed with their interest in production agriculture and some of the processes the industry involves.
"People keep asking me, knowing the hours I worked, if I would do it again," Graver said. "I definitely would. I feel like the people I worked with are a part of my family now, because we’ve spent so much time together. We made lifelong friends in just ten days."
Hall, whose studies focus on engineering, said she wasn’t sure what to expect going into a position as a media intern.
"It definitely gave me a new perspective because my major is in engineering, not communications in agriculture," she said. "I learned the importance of social media in the ag world; we underutilize the power of social media most of the time."
Hall also realized for the first time that she was interested in the political side of agriculture. "I found it really interesting to see the relationship between government groups and agricultural industries, and how important it can be to maintain those relationships and keep them running," she said.
The relationship is mutually beneficial, Herr said. Aside from a critical need to staff the exhibit, Herr said that the internship provides connections for PennAg to the industry’s future leaders.
"Ag is a small world in the scheme of things, and these students will get out into that world and they’ll work for one of our members," he said. "The students will recognize us and help us maintain a relevant relationship. That’s the value in sorting out the best future leaders in agriculture—we’ll have a relationship; our paths will cross."
Herr said the students also bring firsthand knowledge of how the industry is changing. It’s not a world of simple machines anymore; it’s a world of technology, he said, "and these kids come with that understanding right out of the gate."
In addition to being technologically savvy and forward thinking, many of the students also have deep family roots in agriculture.
"What keeps me coming back is tradition," Graver said. "You grow up with a family in agriculture, you see that, and you say, ‘I know that’s for me.’" Graver is the fifth of six generations on Fairyland Farms in Lehighton, Pa.
In his eleven years with the Carbon County 4-H Livestock Club, Graver rose to president, and he now serves as a volunteer leader. He’s shown and sold many beef cattle, sheep, and swine at the local, state, and regional levels. He’s also involved in a range of professional associations and has received numerous awards and scholarships related to his work in agriculture.
Before the 2014 Pennsylvania Farm Show began, Graver was offered a position as a food safety quality assurance technician at Hatfield. The internship provided a chance for him to speak one-on-one with volunteers from Hatfield, and he accepted the position Jan. 15. "Talking with them helped seal the deal," he said. "It made me feel more comfortable with the company and reinforced that this is what I want to do."
Harris, too, grew up on a farm. The Milan, Pa., native was raised on a 65-acre dairy farm in Bradford County called Sunset Ridge. He has shown animals for the Pennsylvania Jersey Cattle Association, and he was vice president of his local 4-H club. He went on to intern at AgChoice in 2012 and Land O’Lakes in 2013. Harris hopes to continue his career in the dairy industry, but the future is wide open.
"My strength is dairy and beef," he said, "but being able to talk with all the volunteers gave me a lot of insight into the other species."
Hall said she stumbled into a passion for agriculture when a teacher brought in officers of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) for a presentation. She grew up north of New York City, and her family moved to a crop farm in Canton, Pa., when she was 12.
"I thought it was really cool; I joined just to be active in more clubs," she said. "I had never really thought about what was inside the barns in my town." She began in 4-H and rapidly got involved in FFA at the local, county, and state levels. She was awarded Bradford County’s Most Outstanding Achiever for placing the highest in all of the judging events in her senior year of high school, was elected to serve as the 2010 Pennsylvania State Fair Queen in 2010, and was elected as the president of the Pennsylvania FFA during 2011 and 2012.
"People have this disconnect, and some think the food just appears in the stores," she said. "That’s why it’s so important for us to make that connection with them, to teach and allow them to understand where their food comes from. The internship reinforced that for me. I spoke with visitors firsthand and was able to sympathize with them because I don’t have a background in farming either."
Hall hopes to use her engineering studies to expand public understanding of agriculture and to help alleviate the pressing dilemma of dwindling farmers and a swelling population.
"We take every opportunity to support the students, understanding that agriculture is at a major crossroads,” Herr said. “We in agriculture are in constant need of new leadership, and we’re looking for the collective establishment of new leaders. Penn State is a tremendous breeding ground for leaders, and this internship has really let the students’ skills shine."
By Rebecca Jones
Photographs by Matthew Lester