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COLUMBUS, OH

No muddy boots. No transportation. No permission slips. No problem. With just a Gmail address, webcam and solid 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 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, 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, said 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 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 the comfort of her office in Columbus, OH, but the stars of the show are the farmers connecting live from their barns, and of course, their pigs.

Ohio farmers Tom Graham of Frazeysburg; Neil Rhonemus of Lynchburg; Lauren Schwab of Somerville; and Jeff Wuebker, of Versailles, 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, where sows and their piglets are cared for from birth until they no longer nurse from their mother. The pigs are then taken to finishing farms until they reach market weight. Graham and Rhonemus (also known as 'Uncle Squeal') share their finishing farms, where pigs arrive when they are approximately 21-days-old, and grow to their final market weight over the course of six months.

'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 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.

'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,' Rhonemus said. 'Just plain people working and owning farms and helping to feed others, caring for the land, animals and each other. The virtual field trips give us the ability to be interactive in ways we haven't before.'

Schwab said she enjoys the interaction and helping students and teachers understand what pig farms and farmers are like.

'I have received thank you letters, and can tell teachers appreciate being able to let their students hear first-hand about agriculture from farmers,' she said.

Teacher-approved

Teachers from both rural and urban areas have shared positive reviews through evaluations after the virtual field trips are completed.

'My students come from a rural area and several show hogs through 4-H, but none of my students have direct knowledge of large scale pork production,' said Betsy Miller, an elementary teacher in New Vienna, Ohio. 'They now understand better what is inside all of the large barns that are in or near our community. I am really impressed by what a nice job everyone did. It was easy for my kids to understand and a very positive message about where your food comes from.'

'The virtual field trips tie well into daily lessons in economics and social studies,' said an urban Columbus, Ohio elementary teacher. 'My students come from low economic areas that don't often have opportunities to learn about what life and work is like on a farm.'

Program model spreading

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.

Peers take notice

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.

'Wisconsin is a smaller pork production state compared to others in the Midwest, so we don't always have the budget or resources to develop new programs on our own, and we're always looking for creative ways to provide information,' said Wisconsin Pork Association Program Director Mandy Masters. 'When Jennifer shared the program with us and the positive response it got, we thought it would be a great opportunity to work together with Ohio Pork Council to bring the field trips to Wisconsin classrooms. We look forward to helping students understand modern pig farming practices and how pig farmers work 24/7 to provide safe, healthy pork for us all to eat.'

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.

'We're still in practice mode, but have been telling people it's coming, and it's already generating a lot of exciting buzz,' said KPA Director of Communications Kim Hanke. 'We think the program is a fantastic way to use technology to share the world of farming with students and network teachers with farmers and organizations that can provide transparent, factual and real-world resources to enhance their lesson plans.'

'We're more than happy to collaborate with our peers and interested parties to bring more real farmers sharing their real stories and answering real questions with classrooms across the country,' Osterholt said. 'It's a great testament to the legitimacy, success and interest in what we are doing, and in what hog farmers across the country are doing.'

Learn more about the Virtual Field Trip to a Pig Farm program at ohiopork.org/fieldtrip or contact Jennifer Osterholt at josterholt@ohiopork.org or 614-882-5887. For inquiries in Kansas, contact Jodi Oleen at jodio@kspork.org or call 785-776-0442. For Wisconsin, contact Mandy Masters at mmasters@wppa.org or call 608-723-7551.

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