A Soil Health Champion’s Guide to Virtual Farm Tours

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Championing soil health in a time of social distancing

Photo: Allef Vinicius

Sharing your personal stewardship journey is essential for Soil Health Champions and at the heart of why we join this network. One of the best ways to do this, is to invite peers and neighbors over to your farm or ranch and show them around. With social distancing orders in place, this is currently not an option, but there are ways to use the internet, video conferencing and social media to keep sharing and learning together. Solutions can be technically advanced or simple, depending on your situation and know-how. But first, here are some important things to keep in mind:

Just as with in-person meetings, the goal is to set up conditions for a fruitful exchange, an interactive experience, and ultimately to create community! In real life, we often do this by sharing a meal or chatting casually while walking from the barn to the field. Even though a sense of ease can be difficult to create online –silences are awkward and the technology can get in the way– as the host you do have the power to set the stage. Choose your media according to your own comfort level and trust in your own style, which will help others relax as well. Just as you would when hosting them physically, you want to make people feel comfortable.

Make an assessment of virtual communication tools that you have already in place. Using what you have experience with (be it a Facebook page, an Instagram account or a website) is a good way to start. Even your email newsletter can become the vehicle for a virtual farm tour, allowing you to share what you do to advance soil health.

Don’t get bogged down by the technology! Choose the level of complexity that you can manage, that matches your skill level and that you have readily available. Start simple and optionally work up to greater complexity as you get more relaxed and things have been going well.

Social media and online communications is second nature to the younger generation. Ask a young person to partner with you on the virtual farm tour, or enlist your kids or grandkids in helping you with the technology.

Download this guide as PDF

Consider what level of online interaction you want in your life. Do you prefer an intimate get together with a select group of invited guests or are you opening your virtual farm gates to whoever wants to explore with you? Is your goal to build awareness about soil health in the general public or do you want to foster a small dedicated support group of peers? Do you enjoy when your mailbox is full of messages or does it overwhelm you at the end of a long day? Do you want to be in constant contact with others or limit interaction to an appointed time? The answers to these questions are essential and will dictate your choice of online communication tools.

If you have a website for your business and you enjoy writing, you might consider adding a blog to share your thoughts and document experiments in soil stewardship. WordPress is an easy to use, free online platform to create your own blog. You can choose to permit visitors to leave comments, allowing for a modest amount of engagement with your audience.

Before you start a blog, take into consideration the amount of time and energy you can devote regularly to writing and posting of pictures. Blogging can be a great creative outlet, but it’s a bit of a commitment!

Facebook page

You might already have a Facebook page for your business, which you could use to post updates from the field. Take pictures or video while you’re out on the range and post them together with a commentary about soil health (either later when back at home or directly, using an app on your smartphone). As your facebook page is visible to everyone on the internet, this medium is useful to address the general public and speak to a wide audience.

Facebook Group

Starting or joining a Facebook Group can create a more intimate experience, depending on the size and restrictions of the group. Several New Mexico Soil Health Champions are sharing updates and progress reports in the Facebook group NM Soil Stewards, administered by the NM Healthy Soil Working Group. This group’s content is mostly private (only members can see it) and requires authorization from the moderator to join, creating a safe space to interact with like minded peers.

Join the NM Soil Stewards Facebook Group

Do you enjoy taking pictures or video? Not a person of many words? Instagram might be a good fit for you –it’s home to a lively farming community, where the main focus is on sharing images with short captions.

Start by creating an Instagram account and post a few images with captions. Branch out into short videos, taken on your phone. Flip the camera to show your surroundings or face the lens as Tommy Casados of C4 Farms tends to do! He has developed a hilarious online persona on Instagram, all the while sharing about conservation and cows.

  • With an emphasis on visual communication, the captions provide context. The ideal length of an Instagram caption is 138-150 characters or about two short sentences. The Instagram character limit is 2,200 characters.
  • Finding your personal style is more important than being conformist! Alderspring Ranch in Colorado for example has a large and very active Instagram following, while customarily posting lengthy captions, often penned by one of their seven daughters.
  • Instagram captions are ideal for sharing personal observations. No need to be formal, people want to hear your personal voice on social media.
  • While it is always important to be extra respectful in online interactions, Instagram generally tends to foster a pretty positive community.

Twitter is very similar to Instagram, but there are some important differences to consider:

  • Both social media platforms are designed for sharing media and content. While Instagram focuses on images and video with captions, Twitter also allows text posts and polls. Twitter features retweeting, quoting, and multilevel reply chains, which can create a tangled forest of replies, all branching off into their own conversations. Instagram remains more focused, allowing only single-level reply chains.
  • The character limit on Twitter is restricted to 280 characters, the most common length of a tweet is 33 characters.
  • Twitter is generally a fast paced medium, where users react to what’s happening right now, often in a rapid-fire way and while multitasking. Instagram on the other hand tends to be more reflective, the stream of images and videos asking for a user’s undivided attention.

These differences might explain why Twitter is notorious for flare-ups among users. That said, if you already have an active and respectful twitter following, posting on Twitter can be a great way to spread the word about soil health.

WhatsApp is a free, instant messaging app that allows communication between smartphones. It works just like sending text messages and is an ideal tool to use outside where you don’t have internet access but are able to connect to the cellular network.

WhatsApp Group Chat

A WhatsApp group is an intimate space, where participants can see and interact with each other.
Start a group chat on WhatsApp or ask to join an existing group. 

  • There is no listing of these groups, these are informal clusters of friends and acquaintances, often in proximity of each other or bound by a shared interest. 
  • Only the owner of the group can add people to the group. A connection is often made through a shared friend who can ask the owner of a group to invite you.
  • You can make calls, send messages, links, photos, videos, files and voice messages to everyone in a group at the same time.

Keep in mind that a WhatsApp group can periodically be very active. If you don’t enjoy being interrupted by social media, then this is not the tool for you. On the up side, being closely linked with a tight group of peers can make you feel connected and less isolated. The informal, quick way of interacting using chat, short videos and snapshots allows for instant feedback. You can ask a question about a problem you might have while you are out in the field and receive an answer from someone right away (provided you have cell phone reception).

WhatsApp Broadcast

You can also use WhatsApp to broadcast to a list of recipients. While this may seem similar to a WhatsApp Group, the major difference is that people cannot see each other in the same Broadcast List. Broadcasting is a more unidirectional way of communicating, that doesn’t create community as a WhatsApp Group does.

All of these social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp) now enable live streaming of video, which creates a more immediate, interactive experience and comes perhaps closest to recreating the benefits of a physical gathering. Once you’re comfortable with the social media platform of your choice and have built a small following, you may want to try hosting a virtual video farm tour live online. You will need either a strong wifi or cell phone connection with unlimited data upload. Read on for a recent case study that documents a successful virtual farm tour.

How to live stream on Facebook

How to live stream using Instagram

How to stream video on Twitter

How to use live video with WhatsApp

Zoom is a video and audio conferencing platform, integrating an online chat function. Users can connect using a smartphone app or desktop application or by calling in over a phone line. Meetings for up to 100 participants are free for a maximum of 40 minutes. Several subscription options to extend meeting time and access additional features are available.

Zoom privacy settings have been improved and now include the use of passwords and waiting rooms in an effort to prevent meetings from being interrupted by hackers. Nonetheless, it is advisable to have a plan in place that details how to shut the meeting down should a security breach occur.

Guidestone Colorado recently held a virtual farm tour on Zoom, showing an online audience of about 40 guests the urban farm that supplies the Farm to School Initiative and usually hosts many educational events. Farm to School Director Monica Pless generously shared the following tips and technical details that were instrumental in creating a successful and fun online event.

Watch a recording of the AgriSummit Virtual Farm Tour 4-16-20 on youtube

The tour was a sequence of short stops in several locations, interspersed by Q&A with the audience. Best practices and lessons learned are applicable to any platform with live streaming capacity. The team at Guidestone chose Zoom because they found Facebook live to be less interactive and the Q&A difficult to manage through the Facebook chat.

Lessons learned:
It’s ideal to conduct the tour with a small team of at least 3 people that fill different roles: 

  • The onsite host or MC is on location and in front of the camera, taking the online audience on a tour of the farm or ranch. The MC is knowledgeable, has hands-on experience and is passionate about sharing and educating others about the topic discussed on the tour.
  • Monica Pless acted as MC during the Guidestone tour. She leads day-to-day operations on the farm which also serves as outdoor classroom for experiential learning opportunities with schools and the greater community. Monica’s extensive practical knowledge and passion about education made for an engaging experience. The whole tour was conducted within a very small radius, and yet traversed several different structures and growing zones. Monica started just outside the main hoop house, then took us inside where she stopped to take questions and give the audience a close-up look of an innovative seedling nursery. Back outside the tour continued to a second moveable high tunnel, along farm fields, and an herb garden. Monica also pointed out a geodesic grow dome, small orchard and production rows farther away.
  • The camera person carries a cell phone running the Zoom app and closely follows the MC during the tour –making sure the MC is in the video frame, zooming in by getting closer or stepping away to pan out. The cell phone is connected to the MC with a 6-8 foot cord plugged into the microphone/audio jack. An external microphone (preferably a lavalier mic) improves audio quality greatly and is an essential investment when live streaming outside, especially in windy conditions. The camera person should be comfortable with the technology, as this phone is also used to communicate in case of technical difficulties.
  • On the Guidestone tour, the camera person remained invisible, which kept the MC focused on the online audience. In a different scenario, the camera person could also act as an interviewer, engaging with the MC.
  • The online host or moderator is stationed in front of a computer at “base camp”, a location with steady internet connectivity –this can be either close by or far away from the location where the tour takes place. It’s important that  the moderator is well versed in the topic of the tour (e.g. a knowledgeable co-worker or business partner to the MC) in addition to being familiar with the online platform.
  • At the start of the virtual tour, the moderator welcomes online guests as they enter the Zoom room and reminds everyone of the ground rules. During the live tour, the moderator monitors the chat box, answering questions as they arise or putting them in a que to be answered by the MC. If the connection to the MC is lost, the moderator is tiding everyone over by engaging with the audience until the MC is back on. This happened a few times during the Guidestone farm tour, but moderator and ED Andrea Earley Coen expertly used these times to answer questions from the audience.

Best practices:
Make sure that you have good cell phone reception on location!
Establish a set of ground rules to set everyone up for an enjoyable experience.
Plan and map out the trajectory for the tour ahead of time, so that everyone on the team knows the sequence of tour stops and where to go next.
Find a good vantage point for your tour with easy access to several points of interest within a few hundred yards of walking. Point out additional features in the distance.
If moving to a second location or if you lose the connection, the moderator can use this time to field questions from the audience.
Consider recording the tour for later viewing. This can be a nice feature for your website, youtube channel or to post on social media.
If live streaming is too daunting or the connection unstable, recording a video and answering questions live online can be a good alternative.

Ground rules:
Ask guests to use the chat box for questions or comments and to remain muted at all times. If the amount of audience members is manageable you might consider allowing guests to be unmuted when prompted by the moderator and ask their questions directly, but keep in mind that audio quality varies and it can be difficult for the MC to hear online participants. Having the moderator act as a go-between will guarantee a smoother if slightly less interactive experience.

Promotion and Outreach

Promoting your virtual farm tour is just as important as it is when planning a physical gathering. Depending on the size and platform you chose for your virtual event, your promotion will either be broad or focused. If you’re planning a public event open to all (streamed live on Facebook for example) you want to promote it broadly and cross-platform. Make it easy for others to share your event –provide a short, compelling sample text and a picture that can be used to post on social media.

Ask others to share the announcement and consider creating a Facebook event for the virtual farm tour, even though the tour might use a different platform. It’s easy for others to share a Facebook event and it creates a bit of a buzz as you can see who is interested in attending.

For a more intimate gathering, have people RSVP in advance and invite guests by email with a link/login to the live event.
Give plenty of lead time to let your guests know how they can participate.
Be prepared to field technical questions and be available to troubleshoot.
TEST every link you send out or post online! Have someone else test as well and ask for feedback –make sure your access link stands out and is easy to find.
Send a reminder closer to the date and an hour or two before going live, clearly highlighting the link to join.

See you online!

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