The Ohio Pork Council is taking a new look at an old elementary school staple — field trips.
There is certainly no shortage of school students interested in taking a field trip to a modern livestock farm but logistics, costs and biosecurity issues make this important educational tool and valuable agricultural outreach effort increasingly impractical. To address this challenge, the Ohio Pork Council has harnessed technology to develop a unique opportunity for teachers and students to participate in a live video-chat with farmers. Using Google Hangouts video chat technology, hog farmers can take students inside their barns and showcase the inner workings of modern production facilities and a variety of aspects of raising pigs from pregnancy through birth to market weight.
“We’ve established a way to open up our hog barns in the state of Ohio and make a connection with folks who may not be able to get out to farms to see where their food comes from. Elementary school classrooms are able to connect live with a farmer virtually and see what goes on in his or her hog farm,” said Quinton Keeran, with the Ohio Pork Council. “We are now kicking off this year’s field trips and are hoping to expand this as far as we can. The program was very well received last year. We are planning to add more farmers and we want to broaden beyond elementary schools. We are going to open this up to high school classes, specifically FFA and vo-ag classes. We are also considering opening this opportunity to the general public.”
Each virtual tour can be shaped by the teacher in the classroom to address the curriculum that is currently being covered.
“This program is unique because we have worked with educators to specifically tailor our messaging to points in curriculum that teachers will be working on,” Keeran said. “We have had several teachers using this in different areas of the curriculum. Some teachers have used this for science, social studies, and economics. The teacher can take this experience and tailor it to the curriculum they are working on.”
While the hog farmers are quite adept talking about their farms, there is some important training needed to get them up to speed on the technology required for the effort.
“Our farmers are very good at what they do, but they may not always be carrying an I-pad and headphones. We had to work with some of the individual farmers that decided to be a part of this to train them on the technology to be able to really provide a nice positive experience for the students that participate in this live video chat,” Keeran said. “Right now we have three farmers participating. We have done some simulations and test runs of these Google Hangouts to try and figure out what equipment works best in their barns. We’ve provided them with some wireless capability to really be able to enhance the experience.”
Farm Credit of Mid-America has been an important supporter of the project with the Ohio Pork Council.
“We are very excited about the opportunity we have been given to enhance the virtual field trip program through support from Farm Credit Mid-America that will continue to grow that project and reach more classrooms within the state of Ohio,” Keeran said.
One of the farmers participating in the virtual field trips is Neil Rhonemus who farms in Highland and Clinton counties and raises contract hogs for the Heimerl family.
“We have two wean-to-finish barns. We get the pigs when they are 21 days old and 12 pounds and we take them to finish weight. They are all gilts,” Rhonemus said. “They are marketed by the Pig Improvement Company. We have shipped pigs all over the U.S. and Mexico and to China. We only have 60 acres of crops so we depend on our neighbors to use the manure from our barns.”
Rhonemus welcomes the opportunity to share his farm with students around Ohio.
“Less than 2% of our population farms and less than 1% actually takes care of livestock. We need to get our story across to the general public so they know what we are doing before somebody makes it up for us,” he said. “So far I have talked to second and third graders and I am going to be talking to some FFA students — I expect a whole different set of questions from them. I explain that pork is meat we get from a hog. It is necessary for us to respect our animals and treat them humanely and, if we eat meat, it is also necessary that we raise animals. I was asked once where the baby pigs come from and I said, ‘They come on a trailer’ which is true. That is how I get them. You have to expect those kinds of questions will come up. Handling the questions from the kids is fun because you never know what to expect when they start talking. You really have to be on your toes. It has been a really good experience for me and I am looking forward to doing more.”
He has found that the students are really interested in what is happening on the farm.
“I’m never surprised about the lack of knowledge about what we do that is out there. I have been surprised about their curiosity, though. These students really want to know about what we do and they want to learn. It is awesome to be involved in,” he said. “One of our teachers was a neighbor not too far from one of our facilities and she initiated some really good questions. I really look forward to those questions from the adults as well. It is really cool and it is exciting to be involved with something like this.”
Rhonemus said that there was a learning curve with the technology involved and the process is not as simple as just turning on an I-pad.
“It wasn’t too bad really once we got the equipment working and got a feel for how things flow. I have an I-pad with headphones to cancel out the noise so I can hear and I have a portable receiver for our Internet,” he said. “Once we are connected we take a tour of the building to show them what is going on then I can field questions from the students. We have a moderator involved so there is a technician involved to handle the equipment. This is a coordinated effort from several people. “
The effort, though, is viewed as worthwhile for everyone involved. The teachers have expressed appreciation for the chance to add a unique teaching tool in the classrooms and the students gain valuable insight into how their food is produced straight from the source that best knows the real answers to their questions — the farmer.