Farmers Share Farm-tour Advice at Workshop

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Amy Halloran New York Correspondent

The New York Animal Agriculture Coalition and the American Dairy Association & Dairy Council led two training workshops last week to help owners of dairy and livestock farms host tours.

These half-day seminars were held in Batavia and Fonda and drew farmers and educators from around the area.

Farm support people from Cornell Cooperative Extension, various economic development councils and Cabot also attended the workshops.

Jessica Ziehm of the New York Animal Agriculture Coalition and Melissa Osgood of the American Dairy Association & Dairy Council delivered information in a tag-team fashion, telling how to plan for a farm tour from an organizational standpoint. The duo covered everything from safety and security to the nuts and bolts of inviting people of all types, from students to legislators, to tour the farm.

At the workshop in Fonda, Ziehm and Osgood shared a PowerPoint presentation with anecdotes about their own and others’ experiences of hosting farm tours, going beyond the nuts and bolts and into the nitty gritty of unpredictable human behavior and potentials for miscommunication.

Participants added to this element, warning against problems they’d encountered such as a kid burning himself on a cigarette lighter. What’s the lesson? Remove all lighters from all vehicles anyone is going to tour in.

When the topic of talking points came up, Neil Peck from Welcome-Stock Farm in Schuylerville echoed the facilitators’ suggestion to stick to talking points and a script. He spoke of a farmer’s comment that was taken out of context by the media.

“It’s good to avoid sarcasm, humor, anything that can be misinterpreted,” Osgood said. “Talking to media can be nerve racking. If you don’t want to say anything silly that could be taken out of context, don’t say anything silly that could be taken out of context. School groups even have PR people that might come along, so be a little cautious about what you say.”

Another human relations area that was covered in detail was dealing with tricky questions and unhappy guests.

“If someone’s really angry, give them a private tour,” said Ziehm. “Pull them to the side, address their concerns and really listen to what they have to say.”

Ziehm backed this advice up with an example. On one tour she gave of Tiashoke Dairy, which her family runs in Washington County, three women stood in the back, clutching their purses and arms folded.

“They hadn’t been on a farm in 50 years and their body language were screaming I hate you people,” said Ziehm. She and her husband gave the women a private tour, listening to their concerns and showing them that just because they don’t see the cows out on pasture all the time, the animals were in good health and treated well.

Ziehm said the personal attention they gave changed the women’s opinions completely. To handle challenging visitors, Osgood and Ziehm recommended having more than one person available for the tour. If that’s not possible, get the group busy so you can take the person aside and address the issues one on one.

Before lunch, participants worked in groups to develop talking points on one element of a potential farm tour, such as environmental stewardship, farm equipment and animal health.

People also had to think about tough questions, and how they’d answer them. From the session that followed, it was clear that people had both faced these situations already and learned something from the morning’s conversation.

After lunch, three panelists discussed farm tours they’d organized.

Penny Heritage spoke about Sundae on the Farm, a one-day event in Saratoga County that is 18 years old. Fifteen of those years have been on a dairy farm and three times it’s been held on a thoroughbred farm. This year it will be at McMahon Thoroughbreds of Saratoga; the last time it was there, Funny Cide, the winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, was an unknown yearling at the farm.

The tour runs Father’s Day from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., and is the project of the Saratoga County Agricultural Promotion Committee. About 15-20 people are on this committee, Heritage said, but she emphasized that they draw heavily on volunteers and many resources within the county. Cornell Cooperative Extension is the insurer and plays a prime leadership role, taking care of printing, bookkeeping and other administrative details.

Stewart’s Shops, known in upstate New York for it’s milk and ice cream and the convenience stores where it sells these products, is also a key contributor.

The committee also relies on tractor dealers and farms for trams and wagons to help handle the 5,000 people who visit the host farm for the day. Up to 200 volunteers work together to make the day a success.

Heritage gave tips the group has learned over the years, like using walkie-talkies for communication and inviting groups to handle meals.

Beth Chittenden is the farm tour coordinator for Dutch Hollow Farm in Schodack Landing. The farm recently opened an education center, building a small shed to handle students and other visitors. They also have a tent and picnic tables.

Chittenden has geared her presentations to meet the curriculum needs of New York state schools. The state has learning standards for each grade and she works to fit these elements into her tours. She also asks teachers what they are studying, to see if there is anything else to incorporate.

Recently, one teacher said they were studying simple machines, so Chittenden made sure to show all the pulleys at work all over the farm. The teacher was delighted with this, Chittenden said, because it gave strong visuals to support her classroom work.

Dutch Hollow Farm has hosted big events, too, such as Cabot’s Sunday on the Farm. On those days, the farm draws on the community for extra help handling the 500 people that may visit.

“We have an expert in each barn and tour guides take groups to each spot,” Chittenden said. “Make sure that the person in that area has a good understanding of what’s going on there.”

Terry Phillips of Dellavalle Farm in Pattersonville spoke about her experiences on a much smaller farm, a 50-cow dairy. She emphasized the importance of planning and meetings and integrating community groups to help make larger days a success. Her farm hosts high school students for two months each year and she described the experience as hosting a farm tour every day. She loves the opportunity and says that the students grow to love things they thought they’d never love, like cows.

Participants in the workshop took home guides, including a DVD farm tour tool kit to use as reference material while planning their own events. They also received signs and plenty of promotional materials from the organizers.

“We were thrilled to see the interest on behalf of the farmers and educators in the room to either start hosting farm tours or to reignite their enthusiasm to plan an on-farm event,” Ziehm said. “While we recognize the amount of work and planning that goes into them, there really is no better way to influence a consumer in a positive way about how food is grown or made than to bring them onto a farm so they can see for themselves.”

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