Plant sciences student seeks to improve agriculture at home and abroad

Kelly Jedrzejewski
August 09, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up on a dairy farm in Mifflintown, Hannah Hunsberger never thought much about agriculture beyond America. That all changed during a mission trip to Haiti with her church.

"While I was in Haiti, I met with a number of local farmers, and it really opened my eyes to the world of agriculture outside of the U.S.," she said. "It made me realize that I wanted to do something in a field I’m passionate about and make a difference for farmers at home and abroad."

That ambition led her to Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, where she is a senior majoring in plant sciences with minors in international agriculture, agronomy and horticulture.

"Penn State has a wealth of opportunities for students. I was ecstatic to learn about the international agriculture minor and how easy it was to find all kinds of classes and research in my area of interest," she said.

One such opportunity was a trip Hunsberger took this spring as part of an embedded course, Walking in the Footsteps of the Irish During the Irish Potato Famine: Examinations of New World Crops in Old World Societies, or Horticulture 499H.

Students learn about the areas of origin, historical uses and current production of "New World crops," or crops that were native to North and South America before 1492, such as potatoes, corn, beans, tomatoes and cacao. The class also looks at the migration of these crops and the impact they had on the Old World societies of Europe, Asia and Africa, or those parts of the world known to Europeans before 1492.

The final five weeks of the course included an in-depth study of Ireland and how the country and its agriculture were affected by the Irish Potato Famine of 1845. The course culminated with a 10-day trip to Ireland.

Hunsberger explained that the trip started with a tour of Dublin, where students learned more about the history and culture of Ireland. The class then visited Teagasc, which is similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service. They talked about the country's sheep-breeding programs and grazing management techniques for sheep and cattle.

The students also learned about the country's current potato-breeding program, discovering that it takes about 15 years to develop a new potato variety. The researchers and breeders are hopeful that CRISPR technology, which enables scientists to alter DNA sequences and modify gene function, will decrease this time to only five years. Researchers still are studying ways to combat the late blight pathogen that was responsible for destroying potato crops during the Irish Potato Famine.

In addition, the class met with an Irish dairy and potato farmer to talk about some of the cultural differences between U.S. and Irish farming. Hunsberger said the farmer mentioned that he did not expect his daughters to help on the farm, which she found surprising.

"With my own farming background, that was a really interesting difference," she said.

During the rest of the trip, the class toured sites in Ireland, including the Ring of Kerry, Galway and Waterford.  

Back home, Hunsberger recently was awarded the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Scholarship. Based in Reston, Virginia, the co-op presented $6,500 worth of scholarships to eight students based on their responses to several essay questions, financial need, leadership activities and career goals. Hunsberger's family dairy ships milk to the Maryland and Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative, which is how she learned about the scholarship.

As she reaches the end of her undergraduate career at Penn State, Hunsberger is considering pursuing a master's degree in international agriculture and development from the University. Her eventual goal is to work for the USDA or a nonprofit group to facilitate the improvement of developing countries' agricultural systems.

Hunsberger appreciates how Penn State has shaped her life and encourages fellow students to explore the many opportunities provided.

"Don’t be afraid to ask questions and pursue your interests," she said. "Let your professors or your adviser know what you want to do — they want you to succeed and will know someone who can help you find where you want to be. Use your connections, too. Without getting to know people in the college, I would have missed out on some great opportunities."

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Last Updated August 09, 2018