Students and teachers in Polk County schools are getting the chance to ride in a combine, tour a hog barn and see farm conservation practices up close without ever leaving the classroom.

The Polk County Farm Bureau is using technology to bring those and other everyday farm activities into schools with its Farm Skype program, which allows students to ask farmers questions and watch as they harvest corn, plant soybeans or feed livestock.
The Farm Skype idea emerged as Farm Bureau members in Iowa’s most populated county discussed ways to teach area students how their food is grown and what farmers are doing to care for animals and the environment, explained Cindy Hall, the Polk County Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom program director. The reality of tight school budgets and time constraints means many schools are no longer able to send students to visit a farm in person, she explained.
“Our goal was to figure out how do we bring kids to experience the farm without incurring the time and cost of a field trip,” said Hall. “Most schools are limited to one field trip per year, and they’re usually scheduled. There’s not much flexibility.”

Instead of trying to bring thousands of students to the farm, the Polk County board figured they could bring the farm to students by using Skype, a program that allows users to make free video calls over the Internet.

On a typical Farm Skype field trip, Hall travels to the farm with an iPad donated by Heartland Coop and interviews a farmer while students watch the live video feed from their classroom. Students are able to interact with the farmer and ask questions, offering many of them their first up-close look at what happens on a farm.

“We found they are about to experience stuff they wouldn’t be able to on a regular field trip,” said Hall. “You couldn’t put 25 third graders in a combine or bring them into a hog building. We see Farm Skype as a perfect opportunity for that.”

Hall tries to integrate the Farm Skype visits into a school’s curriculum by hitting topics the students are currently studying. Op­­portunities exist to discuss seeds and plant life cycles, jobs in rural communities, technology and water and soil conservation with students of all ages from elementary to high school, she said.

In April, Polk County farmer Candi Engler chatted via Skype with students from Cowles Montessori School in Des Moines as part of the school’s annual environmental day. Engler showed two groups of 4th through 6th graders the conservation improvements she and her husband, Ben, have made to protect the soil and water on their northern Polk County farm.

“There was a line of students eager to ask the farmer questions,” said Heather Anderson, a lower elementary educator who coordinated the Cowles Montessori School environmental day activities. “The teachers I spoke with said the students really enjoyed the session.”

Today’s students are comfortable learning through technology and have responded positively to the virtual field trips, Hall added. The interactive experience engages the students more than simply having the farmer visit a classroom to give a talk.

Meanwhile, farmers say the Farm Skype program allows them to reach out to students without worrying about the biosecurity or liability issues that come with hosting large groups on their farms.

“This eliminates all of that,” said Polk County hog farmer Brad Moeckly, who brought students inside his hog barn during a Farm Skype session last fall. “I was in with the pigs and had some interaction with the kids. I could hear the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ in the background. That was kind of neat.”

Students sometimes ask surprising questions, like if the farms have running water and electricity, Hall said.
“They feel like the farm is a world away from them,” she said. “These kids are so close to where it happens, but they don’t see it.”

The Polk County Farm Bureau is enthusiastic about the potential for Farm Skype to help bridge that disconnect, Moeckly said.

“We’re much more of an urban county. There’s just an ocean of kids to reach out to,” he said. “What these kids know about agriculture is next to nothing. But with that said, they’re like sponges. They’re excited as all get out to learn about agriculture.”

Hall is hopeful the Farm Skype idea will spread to other county Farm Bureaus and schools in Iowa and, potentially, across the country. This summer, she will present the program at a national Ag in the Classroom conference in Pennsylvania, where she plans to connect live with an Iowa farmer.

“There’s so many ways we can use this,” she said. “Every teacher I talk to is excited when I talk to them about this project. It’s easy, and there’s really not much expense.”