Penn State sophomore blooms in plant science studies, internship

Jessica Yaeger, a plant science major with a horticulture option, has been named the 2019 GPN/Nexus Intern of the Year, an award sponsored by Greenhouse Product News and Nexus Greenhouse Corp. Credit: Jessica YaegerAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two things impressed sophomore Jessica Yaeger when she visited Penn State’s University Park campus as a prospective student — the College of Agricultural Sciences and the mountains surrounding Happy Valley.

Her experiences as a plant science major with a horticulture option led to an exciting internship at Midwest Groundcovers, where Yaeger was named the 2019 GPN/Nexus Intern of the Year. Sponsored by Greenhouse Product News and Nexus Greenhouse Corp., the winner of this national award receives a $3,000 scholarship plus an all-expense-paid trip to Cultivate ’19, a horticulture show hosted by American Hort. 

“Our department is proud that Jessica has received this award,” said Erin Connolly, professor and head of the Department of Plant Science. “She has distinguished herself as a student who is committed to her studies and to making a difference in the field of plant science.”

For college, Yaeger, who also is working on a minor in agronomy, said she wanted to get out of the Midwest and see a different part of the country.

“I visited Penn State and fell in love with it," she said. "It was the first time I had ever seen mountains and the college felt like a place where I would be very comfortable and that could be home to me for four years.”

Yaeger hails from DeKalb, Illinois, where her family owns a farm with three greenhouses and a farm stand. Those greenhouses produce a variety of annuals, perennials and potted plants, and the farm also has 20 acres of fruit and vegetables. Their farm market celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2017.

“We focus on diversified horticulture, so we have some of everything — pumpkins, squash, corn, soybeans, sweet corn and melons to name a few,” she said. “We mainly do retail sales straight to individual customers, but we also do some wholesale with bulk products such as pumpkins and melons.” 

Continuing with her passion for horticulture on campus, Yaeger is an Ag Advocate and has been the Horticulture Club’s secretary for two years. She is involved in many of the club’s events, including the Hort Show held during the fall semester at the Snider Agricultural Arena. She also conducted research in Penn State’s greenhouse on biological pest control.

“We use good bugs to eat bad bugs to decrease the amount of pesticides needed,” Yaeger said.

Last summer, Yaeger headed back home to work as a greenhouse intern at Midwest Groundcovers' Virgil, Illinois, location. When she arrived in May, Yaeger found herself in the middle of one of the company’s busiest seasons.  

“I came in at the height of the ‘Bud & Bloom’ program, which is when most of the spring flowers are sent out to garden centers,” she said. “I learned how to pull orders, process them, and even prepare plants for shipment and help load the trucks.”  

Quality assurance was important when it came to shipping plants to large garden centers.

“The phrase we used was make sure that the plants were ‘something my grandma would want to buy,’” Yaeger said.

As the summer progressed, the facility transitioned to upkeep and consolidation in preparation for the fall program. In the three-acre greenhouse, Yaeger and her fellow interns worked on planting, pruning and sowing seeds. Mums are one of Midwest Groundcovers' biggest sellers, so the interns also had the chance to learn about growing plants from several thousand cuttings they prepared.

“We root the mums from just a small stem and leaf — then it’s crucial to keep them wet, so they’re misted every five minutes, or the plants would die," Yaeger said. "As they grow, we can back the watering machines off to every seven or 10 minutes.”

She added that learning how to use the automatic irrigation systems, flood tables and other pieces of equipment was one of the highlights of her internship. 

To make the mum-potting process more efficient and faster, Yaeger and another intern were tasked with experimenting with a potting machine. This machine could be adjusted to fill three different sizes of mum pots with soil. It increased planting speed exponentially.

“We could usually plant about 120 plants per hour by hand,” she said. “With the assistance of the machine, we were planting 400 mums in an hour.”

Yaeger added that her plant science classes at the University were an invaluable foundation for her internship.

“They have been very applicable,” said Yaeger. “When I go home now, I look at the farm in a new light and see ways to improve things and ways to fix problems, too.”

Yaeger said her future plans are still wide open.

“I grew up being very involved with agriculture. I was in 4-H and FFA and I knew that’s what I wanted to go into as a career,” she said. “I haven’t decided exactly where I want to be yet. But being able to experience working on both my family’s farm and the larger corporate farm has given me a new perspective on the industry.”  

Last Updated March 25, 2019