Peeking Behind the Farm Gate — Virtually

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Virtual pork tours invite grade schoolers to explore the reality of modern farming

11.21.16
Lauren Schwab learned a lot as a student at Miami University in Ohio, but one thing in particular shaped her future career: Not everyone, she learned when she arrived on campus, understands where their food comes from or what it takes to grow it. At least not the way a farm kid like her does.   
 
“When you’re young and grow up on a farm, you think everyone knows about farm life and how food is produced,” she said. “Even me, growing up on a pig farm, there’s a lot I don’t know.” 
 
Lauren graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and women’s studies, a master’s in family studies, and a determination to do two things: First, to keep working full-time on her family’s farm, the way she had all through college. Second, to use her writing and public speaking skills, honed through 4-H and FFA, to help more people understand modern agriculture.  
 
On a recent weekday morning, Lauren was doing both. She was in the farrowing barn checking on the piglets and the sows, and at the same time she was leading a class of elementary students on a tour. Actually, six classes of students at once. All of whom were still in Wisconsin.

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Lauren has been giving virtual farm tours for about a year and half. She uses an iPad’s video camera and a wireless headset to open her farm gates to the world so students in Ohio and around the country can learn more about where their bacon comes from. Farm Credit Mid-America and the Ohio Pork Council created the program to support the work of the area’s pork farmers. 
 
Virtual tours not only reach far more people than traditional speaking engagements can, they bring people right inside the farm, up close and personal with the animals, in a way that modern biosecurity controls could never allow. 
 
“The most exciting thing is just being able to reach so many more people who can see firsthand inside the barn. They see the face of a farmer — and it’s a different face. Maybe they’re used to seeing someone like my dad,” Lauren said. “I’ll pick up a pig and they’ll see how much I care. They see how clean and nice the barn is, and how comfortable the pigs are.”
 
While the kids love watching little pink noses wiggle in front of the camera, Lauren talks about how her modern farming techniques not only keep the pigs healthier and more comfortable, they also put a more nutritious protein source in grocery stores. 
 
“I talk a lot about the benefits of keeping pigs indoors today,” she said. “When my dad first started [farming in the 1970s], they were all outside. I talk about weather conditions and I show the heat lamps that keep them warm and dry and the fans and how they’re temperature controlled.” 
 
Leading virtual tours is just one of many ways Lauren puts a public face on pork farming. She has a long-running blog, Farm Girl with Curls, and posts regular doses of cute pigs and farming reality on Instagram and Twitter. She’d love to have more company on social media from other farmers.
 
“I would like to encourage other farmers to think about opening their farm gates,” she said. “This is the future. Even if it’s making a one-minute YouTube video or having a Facebook page for your farm and posting pictures of cute pigs. Even if you get 10 likes, you’re still impacting people you didn’t know before.” 
 

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