A closed barn door to a consumer means a pig farmer is hiding something. Little does the public know, the strict biosecurity that prevents them from wandering through the barn keeps pigs safe. Still, this didn’t stop Ohio pig farmers Tom Graham, Rebecca Suber and Neil Rhonemus from opening their barn doors to the public.
Since 2015, Ohio pork producers has hosted over 7,000 students and other groups armed with a tablet or a wi-fi connection. The “Virtual Field Trip to an Ohio Pig Farm” program — started by the Ohio Pork Council in partnership with Farm Credit MidAmerica, Ohio Soybean Council, Cargill, National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council — has inspired programs across the Midwest.
“Virtual tours provide a great opportunity for students and consumers to see inside a modern pig barn, without leaving their homes or classrooms,” says Emily Bir, OPC communication director. “During the live tour, viewers are invited to interact by asking the farmer any questions throughout the session. This not only gives us an opportunity to share modern pig farming practices, but allows people otherwise estranged from farming to learn more about agriculture and how their food is raised.”
When OPC calls asking if 500 children can take a field trip through their barns, Suber, Rhonemus and Graham do not hesitate. However, most pig farmers are not as enthusiastic to tackle facetiming, storytelling, pigs and children at once.
Meet the Ohio pig farmers
Rebecca Suber: Suber family has been farming in southern Ohio for over 200 years. Among the several hog farms owned by the Suber family, Rebecca services three sow units, two nurseries and five wean-to-finish units.
Tom Graham: Farmer from Frazeysburg, Ohio. He has a wean to finishing unit, currently managing it as a nursery. He and his family farm 1,000 acres and also have 60 beef cows
Neil Rhonemus: Raises pigs and crops on his farm near Lynchburg, Ohio. Although he grows some crops, his main focus is the two finishing units.
Essentially, it doesn’t take much to host a virtual field trip. All that is needed is a smartphone or tablet, wi-fi or data connection, and a pig farmer’s warm smile. While pig farmers in other states join Ohio pork producers in opening their barn doors, many producers are still afraid to try. So, we went to the virtual rock stars for some advice. Here is what they shared.
NHF: What is it like to host virtual tours on the farm?
Suber: It is really educational for me, and I hope as well for the kids. It is fun to bring the kids on to the farm and let them know their food comes from a farm and not a grocery store. Most kids and adults from the city do not know the pigs are born, they go to the barn, they grow, and they are taken to the plants to go on to their plates.
Graham: They are all different. The interesting thing is we get all age groups. One day it is third graders, and the next may be high schoolers. One time I was asked if I ever get field trips through my barns. My answer is yes; you are in one right now. Unfortunately, this is how we have to do it because of biosecurity, but you are getting to do it. You can see we have nothing to hide.
Rhonemus: It is really cool! You get to interact with them and let them know we are just real people like them. One of the coolest things I got to do is talk to the pork buyers of major markets in the country as well as dieticians from Columbus, Ohio.
NHF: What are responses from the kids?
Suber: They were super excited. I got a lot of positive feedback. They were happy to see the pigs. They were happy to see a person in with the pigs. They were thrilled to see what a farm looks like.
NHF: What are responses from adults?
Rhonemus: They are surprised how clean and bright the barns are.
NHF: How important is it to share your story?
Rhonemus: It is very important. We can only educate so much. Let’s get on their level and show them we are real people. That is my important message.
Graham: The bottom-line it is one of the most important things we can do as farmers. We know full well that anti-agriculture is out there preaching all the time. We need everyone we can get to take the other side and tell the absolute truth.
Suber: We can touch more lives on online. In person, we can only speak to the small group in one setting. I have upwards of 400-500 people online at one time. So, you are touching all these children that are going to touch more children in an instant. We can put that information out there. I think it is a great thing.
NHF: What do you tell consumers?
Graham: There are two sides to every story. We (producers) need to answer their questions. For example, we all participated in a food blogger event. I got the question right in my face — Are you guys using hormones. My response is No. You have been misinformed. No. 1 there are no hormone for chicken or pork. It would be illegal to use if we did. They do not exist for our industry at all.
Suber: We are the consumers also. Our food is their food. We want safe food. We want to grow the best, safest food for the world, including for myself.
Rhonemus: Trust me. I want to earn your trust.
NHF: What are questions you get from kids?
Suber: Where the pigs come from? How do you produce the pigs?
Rhonemus: Where do your pigs come from?
Graham: What do they eat? Then we switch over, and we can use our camera. We can show them the feed and explain what is in the feed.
NHF: What are questions you get from adults?
Graham: How long would these pigs live outside?
Suber: They ask about hormones and the safety of the pork products.
Rhonemus: They want to know what you are doing in the barns. They want to know about animal welfare.
Valuable tips to absorb
NHF: How do you deal with the negative comments?
Suber: You have to choose your battles. It is really hard to change someone’s mind when it is already made up. You have to learn to let go when they are so far negative. You can talk over them all day long, and you are not going to reach them because their minds are closed.
Rhonemus: You don’t have to fight every battle. On Twitter and Facebook, I fight back hard, answering their questions. There are questions we can handle and others we will give our best shot. We can talk real life the best we can.
Graham: You have to fight that defensive urge. You have to come up with words very fast. We are always in our own world, and we forget they do not know our terminology.
NHF: How do you tell who your real consumer is and not the anti-meat noise?
Rhonemus: You usually can tell by the question they ask online. You can choose to deal with them or not. At some point, you have to address it.
Suber: I agree. You can tell by the questions they ask if they are friend or foe.
NHF: What tip would you give a fellow pig farmer in hosting a tour virtually or getting involved online?
Graham: Just do it. If you don’t do it someone else is going to. Be the positive in it.
Suber: I say feet first. Just jump in. I think you are going to feel silly. I think you are going to say stupid things. You are not going know what to say at first. Just do your thing and be honest. Hopefully, people will follow that and trust that.
Rhonemus: Be real and try to drive the conversation.
Ohio pork producers host the virtual tour alone. In the beginning, a little preparation can help ease the nerves. All three producers say speak the truth and let your passion lead you. Walking visitors through the barn, sharing what pig farmers do every day is the easy part.
Rhonemus says he spends less time preparing what he is going to say and more time on getting the equipment ready. He shares it is best to check your equipment before you begin, especially the wi-fi and data connection.
Being a virtual rock star is not about being a paid farm broadcaster or a keynote speaker. It is about sharing your story and showing why you show up at the barns every day. As Graham says, “Just do it.” Remember to be real, truthful and have fun.
Do not let the fear stop you. When you focus less on yourself and more on the sharing the pig farming experience, the easier it will be. Soon, you will answer the call with excitement when someone asks to take a virtual field trip through your barns.
Learn more about what equipment is needed to host a video chat.