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Virtual tours help farmers host far-flung visitors

Technology is helping Iowa agriculture bring school kids and others right to the farm. And there’s no need to worry about sunburns, bug bites or long trips on the bus.

Instead of traveling across several states, or 1,450 miles and 21 hours by bus, kindergarten students at Kermit Booker Elementary School in Las Vegas took a virtual field to some Iowa farms recently.

Following a classroom unit about farming and agriculture, teachers wanted to give their students an opportunity to visit the farm. But the school’s budget and the time it would take to travel to the farm wouldn’t allow for a one-on-one visit with the farmer in Iowa.

Instead, the school’s digital learning coach at the school, Mark Thomas, had an idea. He went to Google and searched “virtual tour of a farm” and found the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom program in Polk County. There, he was able to connect to the coordinator of the program, Gretchen Voga.

Voga determined which type of farms the class wanted to visit and set up the classes up with a live tour of a cattle farm and a farm that raises chickens, flowers and vegetables.

This experience for kindergarten students in Las Vegas is only one example of the types of tours farmers are opening their doors to. In fact, the Farm Chat program concept was developed by a farmer who had a Skype conversation with his daughter who was traveling abroad.

Farmers enjoy sharing their farm to visitors, but the Farm Chat concept allows farmers to keep their animals, as well as visitors, safe. And for inner-city schools, like Kermit Booker Elementary Schoo,l with a limited budget, it allows students to have a different experience with no cost.

And it’s not just schools in other states who have inquired about virtual farm visits. Schools within 50 miles of the farms have taken a virtual tour for various reasons.

“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.

For the Las Vegas students, 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.

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 the Downtown Ames Farmers Market and the North Grand Farmers Market, and grow 5,000 perennials every year, which they sell on their farm.

“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 were able to hear actual farm animal sounds and see animals,” he said. And it enhanced the learning experience in the classroom.

“It was awesome because it confirmed some of the things we’d been talking about in class. It’s one thing to talk about what it’s like on a 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 tractors or the fields, so to actually see that and how it worked really made a difference,” Thomas said.

By Bethany Baratta. Bethany is Iowa Farm Bureau’s commodities writer.