The COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t shut down farms, but it did a great job at halting vital community engagement on farms all around the world. Many farmers invite local schools to the farm to help teach kids about where their food comes from. Along with school tours, open farm days had to be canceled as well. No hay rides, no pumpkin patches, no tours of tapped woods or friendly 4-H critters to pet.
With an ever-growing gap between food producers and local consumers, stopping farm tours was the last thing we needed. But when one barn door closes, another one opens! Virtual farm tours are here to stay.
Dairy farmers appear to be taking the lead on the virtual farm tours. The American Dairy Association has made trips to dairy farms around the country to offer live tours to school kids. Teachers log in to zoom and get to talk to farmers and see the farms in real time, all without the headache of signing permission slips, packing lunches, and booking buses.
Many farmers that I know were leery about trying out virtual tours. These farmers really look forward to the schools coming to see the farm, and farmers are proud to teach their community about where their food comes from. But to their surprise, all parties involved have loved the virtual farm tours.
The ADA North East has great resources for schools about how to build dairy into school curriculum. Without the hassle of getting on a bus and driving to the farm, schools have more time in the day to talk about the farm after their tour. Their resources include farm vocabulary, short informational videos, and even a video on how milk goes from cow to cup in less than two days’ time. They also provide pre-recorded farm tours and registration for live farm tours.
The association streams the tours on Facebook Live as well, allowing community members outside of the school to join the tour and ask their questions. Capturing a bigger audience is definitely the biggest gain from virtual tours.
Emma Swarthout, the director of dairy industry image for ADANE, says, “Virtual farm tours are so important because they are an accessible and affordable way to provide on-farm experiences to students and communities that may not have the opportunity otherwise.”
Swarthout is the liaison between dairy farmers and schools for these tours. Growing up on a dairy and giving numerous in-person tours herself, she says, “Any opportunity that allows a person to see where their food comes from can have a long-term impact on their food choices.”
A website that offers interactive pre-recorded tours is Farm Food 360. The videos are tours of livestock and poultry farms, apple orchards, feed mills, and food processing plants. These tours are not just videos of the operations, they allow the audience to move themselves around the farm with a 360-view function. It creates an experience where it feels like you are actually on the farm looking around.
National Agriculture in the Classroom also gets high marks for the variety of virtual farm tours it provides on its site.
Maybe I haven’t convinced you that virtual farm tours are more fun, but they are absolutely effective. It is important for everyone to know where their food comes from, and the virtual setting is all inclusive. The way we communicate and connect with each other is changing. Farmers are adopting new technology to the farm everyday, why not host a few virtual tours?
Elizabeth Maslyn is a Cornell University student pursuing a career in the dairy industry. Her passion for agriculture has driven her desire to learn more, and let the voices of our farmers be heard.