Brady Robinson and Finnegan Miller don’t eat really spicy peppers.
The 15-year-old Conrad Weiser High School freshmen will occasionally dig into a milder variety, but their young palettes can’t handle the peppers that sit on the scary end of the Scoville scale — the ones that sting and burn the tongue, that elicit sweaty, snotty reactions.
But just because they don’t indulge themselves doesn’t mean they can’t help others enjoy the mouth-numbing experience.
Standing inside a small greenhouse on the east side of the high school, they told the small crowd gathered around them about their plans to take pollen from a scorpion pepper plant and place it on a Carolina reaper plant.
“We’re basically trying to cross-breed super hot peppers to make them even hotter,” Finnegan explained, eliciting a laugh from the crowd.
Acting state Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty, one of the members of that crowd, seemed intrigued. But not enough to sample the boys’ creation.
“I’ll try the tea, but this I’m a little scared of,” he said, referring to the refreshing drink he sampled at the previous stop on a tour of Conrad Weiser’s agriculture education program.
The tour was part of an event Monday afternoon at the high school in western Berks County to highlight the work being done by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to improve access to agriculture education.
State Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding, who was also on hand, said Conrad Weiser was the perfect place for such an endeavor.
“This is an amazing school and district,” he said. “And as I drove down Route 422, I was reminded that this is an amazing county.”
Redding lauded the commitment to agriculture in Berks, saying you can find everything from multigenerational farms to urban gardens to state-of-the-art organic research within the county’s borders. It’s a place, he said, where people understand the integration of agriculture with science and research.
“I could not think of a better backdrop to talk about education, certainly agriculture education,” he said.
Redding said there has been a statewide commitment to improving agriculture education that has been gaining steam over the past four or five years. Part of that effort has been the creation of the Pennsylvania Commission for Agriculture Education Excellence.
The commission, Redding said, is a collective response to the challenges agriculture has been facing, in particular an ongoing manpower shortage. The idea is to ensure that enough young people are getting exposed to agriculture careers and the education they need to pursue them.
“The agriculture industry cannot continue to feed the world without feeding the minds our youth,” Redding said. “The innovative programs we’re seeing today are representative of an education that exposes students to the possibilities in agriculture, sparking their imaginations for how their curiosity, passions and interests can be put to work in our industry.
“Across Pennsylvania, our programs are preparing an increasingly more diverse group of students who will be agile in adopting technology and solving the complex challenges that come with climate change.”
Holding an apple in his right hand, Hagarty said education and agriculture are intertwined.
“It’s no coincidence that the symbol of education is an agricultural product,” he said.
Hagarty said agriculture is something that touches everyone’s lives, even if they’re not aware of it.
“Most everything we use is an agricultural commodity,” he said.
And, the acting secretary added, someone is responsible for producing each and every one. To make sure that continues into the future, he said, the next generation of needs access to opportunities.
“From hydroponics to animal care, urban gardens to FFA, agriculture education opens up endless opportunities for students to engage in learning that will lead to meaningful, family-sustaining careers,” he said. “The departments of education and agriculture, along with the Pennsylvania Commission for Agriculture Education, are committed to ensuring that learners across the commonwealth can take advantage of high-quality, engaging agriculture education curriculum and programming in their school, no matter which city or town they call home”
Stephon Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Commission for Agriculture Education Excellence, said that’s what the commission is all about. He said his goal is to provide agricultural experiences to every student across the state, the types of things that weren’t available to him when he was in high school.
“At the end of the day, agriculture is for all,” he said.
To highlight the commission’s success in that regard, Fitzpatrick announced the commission has unveiled its 2022 annual report.
The 55-page annual report provides a wealth of detail about the efforts of the commission.
Among the accomplishments it lists:
• Hiring Fitzpatrick as executive director.
• Launching the Pennsylvania Junior Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANRRS) Program initiative.
• Working with the Community College of Philadelphia to develop an indoor farming degree and certification program for fall 2022.
• Engaging the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township in a variety of initiatives aimed at increasing organic farming education in urban communities.
• Supporting the PA Career Ready Coalition and Remake Learning Days across the state to help increase agriculture literacy on opportunities available within the agriculture industry. The programs have the capacity to reach almost 7,000 students across the state.
• Successfully completing a diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility assessment of Pennsylvania’s agriculture education system, developing an inclusion council and implementing a diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility strategic plan.
The report also takes a look at indicators of how many students are getting involved with agriculture programs.
It states that in the 2021-22 school year a total of 14,319 Pennsylvania students were members of FFA. That’s an increase of 752 from the previous year and of 1,372 from five years ago.
Membership in 4-H clubs has also gone up. The report shows that during the 2021-22 school year there were 11,822 members, compared to 10,736 the previous year.
The report also tackles topics like workforce trends, apprenticeship programs, funding and proposed regulatory changes. To view the full report visit agriculture.pa.gov.
Following a brief press conference, Redding, Hagarty and other visitors were given a tour of Conrad Weiser’s renowned agriculture program.
At each stop, they were greeted by students who explained what the program has meant to them.
Hailey Blatt showed of her award-winning heifer, Rene, who was residing in the high school’s small barn. She said Rene was born on her family’s small dairy farm and, hopefully, will play a key roll in the 15-year-old sophomore’s future plans.
“I want it to get bigger,” she said of her family farm. “And she will be a really influential part of that.”
Hailey said she will continue to breed Rene in hopes of enlarging her family’s herd. She said her career goal is to run a large dairy farm, hopefully in Pennsylvania.
“Not hopefully,” Hagarty interjected. “Definitely in Pennsylvania.”
Around the corner in the barn, Hagarty and Redding met freshmen Gannon Harlow and Colton Werner. The pair have embarked on a project to raise bobwhite quail.
It runs in Colton’s family. He said his great-grandfather taught his dad about raising the birds, and now he’s taking a crack at it.
“Our plan it to raise them to release into the wild for hunting or raise them for food,” Gannon explained.
Adam Serfass, an agriculture education teacher at Conrad Weiser, said the bobwhite project is a perfect example of how the school tries to support students’ inquisitiveness.
“We really do try to focus on the students’ interests,” he said, adding that it might result in careers in the field or a realization a student wants to do something else. “We want them to be able to figure that out.”
The tour also included stops to visit a community refrigerator where community members can pick up items grown and made at Conrad Weiser, like the tea Hagarty was fond of. Guests also got a chance to check out scientific labs — where some middle school students showed off some skills needed to conduct investigations as conservation officer — and meet some goats.