Virtual field trips bring pig farms to classrooms

Ohio Pork Council program expanding across Midwest.

No muddy boots? No transportation? No permission slips? No problem. With just a Gmail address, webcam and internet connection, classrooms throughout Ohio — and, soon, throughout the Midwest — are being turned into virtual pig farms, thanks to a program initiated by the Ohio Pork Council (OPC) in partnership with Farm Credit Mid-America.

The “Virtual Field Trip to an Ohio Pig Farm” program, started by OPC in 2015, allows students who may have never experienced a farm to participate in a live video tour and chat with an Ohio pig farmer to learn what it takes to raise pigs.

For the farmers who connect using their tablets and mobile phones, it was never a question of wanting classrooms to see the inner workings of their farms, OPC director of marketing and education Jennifer Osterholt said.

“With the best interest of people and pigs in mind, it’s difficult to allow many visitors to physically enter barns on a pig farm,” Osterholt said. “The virtual field trips, conducted through Google Hangouts live video chat, provide a sound solution for farmers to open their barn doors and share the ins and outs of being a pig farmer. It’s also a great answer to the increasing need for transparency in the agriculture industry.”

How it works

Osterholt facilitates the virtual field trips from her office in Columbus, Ohio, but the stars of the show are the farmers connecting live from their barns and, of course, their pigs.

Tom Graham of Frazeysburg, Ohio; Neil Rhonemus, of Lynchburg, Ohio; Lauren Schwab, of Somerville, Ohio, and Jeff Wuebker, of Versailles, Ohio, are among the pig farmers in the Buckeye State who have hosted virtual field trips to their farms with classrooms from all corners of the state and everywhere in between.

“Up to 10 classrooms join an interactive live session at once,” Osterholt said. “Teachers sign up for a virtual field trip in advance, and we contract with a technology coordinator to host a practice session with each to ensure their experience goes off without a hitch. We also provide a classroom activity sheet ahead of time to help the class prepare for the trip.”

If more than 10 classrooms are participating, additional classrooms may join through a live YouTube link and send questions via chat.

During the virtual field trip, a farmer gives a tour of the barns, sharing how pregnant sows, piglets and growing pigs are cared for. Veterinarians and farm workers sometimes join in to share their perspectives with students, who are invited to submit questions to the farmer ahead of the live session and to ask questions directly to the farmer during the virtual field trip.

“On occasion, classrooms have even witnessed the live birth of piglets, which is very exciting for the students, the teachers and even the farmers to be able to share the experience,” Osterholt said.

Rhonemus said he has had great feedback from the program, noting that teachers and students often visit his Facebook page after a virtual field trip and even email him with more questions.

“I think it’s important for farmers like me — untrained in public relations, and not hired professionals — to share what we do when asked — just plain people working and owning farms and helping to feed others, caring for the land, animals and each other,” Rhonemus said. "The virtual field trips give us the ability to be interactive in ways we haven’t before.”

Spreading throughout the Midwest

The virtual field trip program focused solely on pork production was piloted by OPC to offer virtual field trips to fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms in the spring of 2015. The overwhelmingly positive feedback, however, encouraged OPC to offer the field trips throughout the entire school year and open it up to middle school and high school students for the foreseeable future, with a special focus on career development opportunities for high school FFA classes.

Since March 2015, a growing list of 88 schools with a total of 3,330 students have signed up for the virtual field trips, which is many more than the farmers conducting the virtual field trips could ever accommodate physically. Countless more have watched previously recorded sessions that are available on OPC’s YouTube channel.

The success of the program also hasn’t gone unnoticed by OPC’s peers. Starting in April, the Wisconsin Pork Assn. will be dipping its toe into the virtual field trip program and connecting classrooms in the Badger State with the Ohio farmers, with a goal of bringing Wisconsin farmers on board in the future. Kansas pig farmers will also be replicating the program, with the first live session to be in front of more than 100 Kansas teachers at a workshop in June.

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