Neil Rhonemus

Neil Rhonemus

Virtual field trips bring pig farms to classrooms

Classrooms across Ohio have been taking virtual tours of pig farms since 2015, and that opportunity is now spreading throughout the Midwest.

The “Virtual Field Trip to an Ohio Pig Farm” program, started by the Ohio Pork Council in partnership with Farm Credit MidAmerica, allows students who may have never experienced a farm to participate in a live video tour and chat with an Ohio pig farmer, learning 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, says OPC Director of Marketing and Education Jennifer Osterholt.

“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 says. “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 the comfort of 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.

Schwab Farms and Wuebker Farms are farrow-to-wean farms. Graham and Rhonemus (also known as “Uncle Squeal”) share their finishing farms.

“Up to 10 classrooms join an interactive live session at once,” Osterholt says. “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 their 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.

A model spreading throughout the Midwest

OPC discovered the merit of virtual field trips upon its involvement in a series of Google Hangouts started by Ohio Farm Bureau Federation Organization Director Michele Specht, who, along with Farm Bureau member volunteers, conducts a series of agriculture-oriented sessions for classrooms in the northeast part of the state.

The virtual field trip program focused solely on pork production was piloted by OPC in the spring of 2015, offering virtual field trips to fourth and fifth grade classrooms. The overwhelmingly positive feedback has encouraged OPC to offer the field trips throughout the entire school year and open it up to middle and high school students for the foreseeable future, with 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, which have recorded over 2,200 views.

The success of the program hasn’t gone unnoticed by OPC’s peers.

Starting in April, the Wisconsin Pork Association will be dipping its toe into the virtual field trips program, connecting classrooms in the Badger State with Ohio farmers, with a goal of bringing Wisconsin farmers on board in the future.

Kansas pig farmers will also be firing up their mobile devices this fall, when the Kansas Pork Association will be replicating the program in the Sunflower State. KPA’s first live session will be in front of more than 100 Kansas teachers at a workshop in June.

Learn more about the Virtual Field Trip to a Pig Farm program at ohiopork.org/fieldtrip or contact Jennifer Osterholt at [email protected] or 614-882-5887.
For inquiries in Kansas, contact Jodi Oleen at [email protected] or 785-776-0442.
For Wisconsin, contact Mandy Masters at [email protected] or 608-723-7551.

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