The students always enjoy seeing baby pigs.

A virtual success

By Matt Reese

Our food chain connecting farms to consumers is remarkable — a true modern miracle — but it is often not very transparent. This confounds people seeking a more intimate connection with the origins of their food and leads to a whole host of challenges between producers, consumers and the many steps connecting them. As this knowledge gap only seems to be widening, it is more important than ever to find innovative ways to connect the people who eat with the farmers who produce their food.

With this in mind, the Ohio Pork Council teamed up with Springfield-based Shift•ology Communication back in 2015 to start Virtual Field Trips to bring farm visits into classrooms. Virtual Farm Trips use technology to mitigate farm biosecurity and school budgetary issues while allowing students to visit farms and talk with a farmer in real time to learn about agriculture. Virtual Farm Trips hit an impressive 1 million student milestone with a virtual dairy farm visit, hosted by United Dairy Industry of Michigan on Oct. 12, National Farmers Day.

“Students are able to connect with farmers in their boots, fields, equipment and barns on their

actual farms,” said Dan Toland, director of virtual experiences at Shift•ology Communication. “No two trips are ever the same.”

Instead of pre-produced, scripted videos, Virtual Farms Trips focuses on interactive, live experiences between audiences with real farmers. Virtual Farm Trips works with partner hosts and teachers who choose to participate with their classrooms. Nearly 24,000 teachers around the country have signed up to receive email notifications when new trips are available in their state or regions for their students to attend.

“Virtual Farm Trips has provided an opportunity for our partners and their farmers to tell their

stories in the most authentic, unscripted way possible,” Toland said. “Right now a single Virtual Farm Trip reaches over 2,000 students on average. However, we’ve reached as many as 40,000 students at one time.”

Virtual Field Trips have highlighted many types of agricultural production including large-scale, traditional operations and small niche products including mushrooms and yaks.

“The program started with a single pilot trip for Ohio Pork Council in 2015 during which we

connected a few classrooms with a pig farmer in real-time,” Toland said. “We’ve now hosted nearly 400 trips thanks to dozens of partners across the U.S.”

One of the initial farmers to work with the program was Neil Rhonemus who farms in Highland and Clinton counties and raises contract hogs.

Rhonemus welcomed the opportunity to share his farm with students around Ohio when I interviewed him about some of the first Virtual Farm Trips in 2015.

“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,” Rhonemus said in the interview back in 2015. “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.”

Shift•ology provides the technical and logistical framework to help each partner build a custom

Virtual Farm Trips program and lets the farmers do the talking. Teachers can visit virtualfarmtrips.com to sign-up for upcoming trips, watch past trips on the on-demand portal or learn more about the program’s partners. Potential partners can learn more about working with Virtual Farm Trips at virtualfarmtrips.com/partnership-information.

“This collaboration has allowed students in inner cities, suburban areas and rural districts, to experience first-hand the reality of modern farms and food production, even when arranging in-person visits is increasingly difficult,” said Melanie Wilt, founder and CEO of Shift•ology Communication. “Public relations and agricultural literacy can be hard to measure, so we celebrate this milestone knowing we have made a difference in the lives of a million students and American consumers.”

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