Instead of traveling the 1,450 miles and 21 hours by bus, kindergarten students at Kermit Booker Elementary School in Las Vegas were able to use technology to tour two Iowa farms.

The three classes had finished a lesson on farming, learning about crops and livestock, and teachers wanted to find a way to use technology to further their students’ understanding of a farm, according to Mark Thomas, digital learning coach at Kermit Booker Elementary School.

"We’re an inner-city school, so kids don’t have a whole lot of opportunities to get out of the classroom," Thomas said. "So they (the teachers) wanted to look at virtual field trips."

Through a simple Google search, something like "virtual tour of a farm," Thomas found the Iowa Farm Bureau website and another link to the Polk County Ag in the Classroom program. There, he found the contact information for Gretchen Voga, director of the Polk County Farm Bureau Ag in the Classroom program. Voga then coordinated the Farm Chat between the kindergarten classes and the two farms near Boone: the Anderson Farm and Red Granite Farm.

The first stop on the tour was the Anderson Farm. There, Laura Anderson Loots, a Boone County Farm Bureau member, explained that she and her family raise cattle and crops on their century farm. On her farm, Loots showed the kindergarten students her 12 cow/calf pairs and pointed out a corn field. Loots, along with her brother and father, raise corn, soybeans, oats and hay. They also grow sweet corn for Birds Eye. Laura also has some broiler chickens and laying hens on the farm.

On the other end of the Google Hangouts connection, kids shriek­ed in excitement as they heard the moo of the cows.

This wasn’t her first Farm Chat experience. Loots showed some students around a little more than a year ago.

"I just think it’s neat," Loots said. "These kids have no concept (of what a farm is). And how else are they going to learn unless we volunteer?"

Shortly after Loots’ farm tour, Nicole Jonas of Red Granite Farm came through on a Skype connection to show the students her chicken, vegetable and flower farm.

The new flock arrives in early April each year and starts laying in August. For a few months of the year, there will be more than 400 hens laying, which can turn out around 30 dozen eggs a day. The family sells nearly 100 dozen eggs to Burgie’s Coffee and Tea Company in Ames each week. The Story City Locker also sells their farm fresh eggs. The Jonas family also has 3 acres in vegetable production, which they sell at Downtown Ames Farmers Market and the North Grand Farmers Market, and grow 5,000 perennials every year, which they sell on their farm.

Curious about eggs

Carrying a wireless microphone, Jonas walked through the hens, pointing out how they feed and water their hens and how they collect the eggs. The kindergarten students were curious about how they collect the eggs, she said.

"They were asking the color of the eggs, where they lay their eggs; they were probably envisioning a bird’s nest," Jonas said. So through the use of the iPad and the Skype connection, Jonas was able to point out just that.

That’s the beauty of using a real-time connection in the farm tours, Voga said.

"It’s a little better than a video because it’s in real time. They can ask questions right on the spot," she said.

This was the third Farm Chat that Red Granite Farm participated in just this spring, she said. Other virtual visitors included students from two nearby schools.

"It’s a great way to get around the field trip logistics and cost so kids (and schools) don’t have that. On the farm end, they don’t have to deal with the liability issues," Voga said.

And in the case of livestock farms, farmers don’t have to worry about biosecurity concerns, she said.

"Since it’s just me and the iPad and the farmer, the kids get to go inside the livestock building, they get to see how they’re fed, how they’re watered," Voga said.

Thomas said the students loved their tours of the Iowa farms.

"They absolutely loved it. They were able to hear actual farm animal sounds and see animals," Thomas said.

And it enhanced the learning experience in the classroom, he said.

"It was awesome because it confirmed some of the things they had been talking about in class. It’s one thing to talk about what it’s like on the farm, it’s another for the kids to see that live and how it really happens. They don’t have the opportunity to see live cows or see tractors or the fields, so to actually see that and how it worked helps confirm that for them," Thomas said.