YouTube sensations

YouTube sensations

The sign posted outside the biosecure barn where Tom Graham raises some 2,400 pigs at a time says “NO ENTRY.” Nonetheless, Graham has given tours of his wean-to-finish operation at Oaklawn Farm to hundreds of children in grades K–12. How does he do it? With his smartphone and some help from the Ohio Pork Council. 

Graham is a member of The Energy Cooperative, based in Newark, and also serves on the cooperative’s board of directors. In partnership with family members, Graham grows grain and raises Angus cattle and pigs on about 1,000 acres near Frazeysburg that once was owned by famed horse breeder G.W. Crawford. When they purchased the property in 1983, it already had a sow barn, and because Graham’s wife, Sue, is a teacher, they routinely gave tours to students. 

Tom Graham with pigs

Farmer and co-op trustee Tom Graham helps educate young people about agriculture by participating in the Ohio Pork Council's virtual field trips.

“We used to bring in busloads of kids, but after we got a biosecure barn, there wasn’t much they could see,” says Graham. He built the facility in 2004 in order to raise gilts and barrows on a contractual basis for Johnstown-based Heimerl Farms. The arrangement not only frees Graham from worries about market fluctuations but also furnishes income that has helped his close-knit family remain on their farm. “I always tell people my wife teaches at Zanesville High School so I can keep farming,” he says with a grin. 

When the Ohio Pork Council launched its Virtual Field Trip to an Ohio Pig Farm program in 2015, Graham was one of its first hosts. “I got involved because I was doing a lot of social media and agriculture-related posts,” says Graham. “I saw virtual trips as an opportunity to acquaint more youngsters with agriculture.” As technological show-and-tells, the trips also allow him to give live tours of his biosecure barn without being concerned about importing pathogens and organisms harmful to pigs. 

According to Meghann Winters of the Ohio Pork Council, “It’s important to learn about Ohio agriculture from a young age, so that people have an understanding of where food comes from and are informed consumers at the grocery store.” To date, more than 18,000 students from nearly 500 schools have connected with farmers via Wi-Fi and Zoom, and the trips are uploaded to YouTube so that teachers can reference them. Last March, when most schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, a trip was even livestreamed on Facebook throughout the United States. 

When Graham conducts a virtual trip, he goes whole hog: He wears a noise-canceling headset so that students aren’t distracted by porcine squeals, grunts, and snorts and adjusts his presentation and vocabulary to the kids’ grade level. Graham usually begins by explaining that the pigs arrive at his barn when they are 18 to 21 days old and weigh 12 to 15 pounds. “They get here the day they’re weaned. We have to hand-feed them at first because they’ve never had dry food,” says Graham. Walking from pen to pen, he talks about using heaters, fans, and ventilation boxes to keep the barn at about 74 degrees year-round and the importance of constantly providing the pigs with fresh water and food. After about five months of Graham’s care and feeding, the animals reach their 280-pound market weight. 

The virtual trips always include question-and-answer sessions. “They’re fun,” says Graham, “because you have no idea what the kids will ask.” Common questions include “Why are the pigs white?” (they’re primarily Yorkshire-based breeds) and “Where do they poop?” (concrete floor slats let manure fall into a pit beneath the pens). 

Students, however, don’t get to see the biosecure protocol that Graham faithfully follows before any contact with the pigs. Anyone entering the barn must remove all street clothing in a “dirty” dressing room, take a shower, then put on barn coveralls and rubber boots in a “clean” dressing room. Exiting the barn, the process is reversed. Since Graham typically tends the pigs three times a day, he has a six-shower-a-day habit. “Hog farmers are the cleanest farmers there are,” he says. “We shower all the time.” 

For information on scheduling a tour, visit the Ohio Pork Council website or call 614-882-5887.