Gearing up for field trips again

by Courtney Llewellyn

August means back to school time for much of America. And back to school – especially post-pandemic – means teachers and students will also be heading back out on field trips too. Fortunately, those who have experience are willing to share their wisdom, like Debbie Sebolt of Nickajack Farms in North Lawrence, Ohio.

Sebolt talked about managing farm field trips earlier this year through a NAFDMA webinar. Previously an elementary school teacher, she’s owned her farm for 17 years, and has been hosting field trips all 17 years.

“First, think about what your farm has to offer to these groups and why they should see you,” she stated. Consider your seasonality (spring, autumn, year-round, etc.), and your specialty (crops, dairy, honey, orchards, etc.). For example, Nickajack Farms has horses “and every child loves horses, so we focus on that,” Sebolt said. “We also grow an awful lot of hay, but you can’t have a great field trip based on that alone. A dairy is a field trip every kid is going to love.” (They also grow flowers, pumpkins and other vegetables.)

Next, think about who is going to teach the field trip on your farm. Do you have enough staff and are they qualified to lead tours? If it’s just you, a field trip could take up a significant portion of your workday. If you’re the only person doing field trips, how many tours can you do a day? How much is your time worth to you? Sebolt wants you to consider this.

If you bring in staff to lead trips, make sure they’re comfortable speaking in front of a crowd and nimble enough to answer questions. Sebolt said they have to be excited and passionate about whatever topic they’re covering. “Staff members can make or break your tours,” she said. “When hiring, use words like enthusiastic, upbeat, helpful, respectful, reliable.”

Retired teachers are another option, since they’ll know what they’re doing on the teaching side, but you’ll have to teach them the farm-specific content to ensure they understand it 100% – and ensure they’re teaching topics that engage kids.

To hold students’ attentions, you’ll need strong visuals. You need the field trip to be interactive. Sebolt suggested offering something a child can relate to: drinking milk, eating vegetables, carving pumpkins, etc. She said it’s important they understand what they’re learning. “We had a day the vet came to check out our horses’ hooves, and that was an A+ day for us and the kids,” she said.

If you don’t have the staff or volunteers to help, you could also think about offering a self-guided tour, “but that’s a whole new realm of logistics,” Sebolt said. Would they use signage for the tour? Would you include props? Ultimately, it all comes down to planning and execution.

Logistically, farmers need to consider their layout, how to move groups around the farm and what amount of people can safely be in each location. “On our farm, we have classroom space that fits up to 50 people. If there’s more than that, we figure out how to split the group and what each group will be doing,” Sebolt explained.

Also, can you accommodate groups with disabilities? That can be difficult for farms, with unpaved areas, steps and narrow spaces inside certain buildings. When booking a field trip, ask if they have any attendees who need accommodations up front – and the day of the tour, make sure those accommodations are ready to go when they arrive. Always factor in extra space and time and hire patient staff.

Scheduling field trips “can get very, very complicated,” according to Sebolt. “We like to schedule a week to two out – for our staff and for any accommodations.” What you’re doing when you’re creating these schedules is creating time management for every person on your farm. At Nickajack, they use a color-coded spreadsheet so everyone knows where they need to be and when.

Know how many components will be in your tour, such as a hayride, classroom time (which could be an actual room or the field), lunchtime, any free time and any extras. Be aware of the length of each component and your time commitment – and how long it takes large groups of children to move from place to place.

The standard Nickajack Farms field trip includes a guided tour of the group’s choice that lasts approximately one hour, a 30-minute wagon ride, space to eat lunch and time to shop in the gift shop. Their playground, Activity Barn, Rascals Round-Up and Discovery Barn are all self-guided. They also do farm access self-guided tours and Pumpkin Days self-guided tours – they only need to meet and greet the groups. “The self-guided tours are great for disability groups because they can tour on their own terms,” Sebolt noted. They also offer customized tours where they create a tour that builds on what is being taught in the classroom.

The key to a good field trip is a great experience, start to finish. “Make sure the end of the tour is as good as the beginning of the tour,” Sebolt said. “Smile when they arrive, smile when they leave. The most important thing for your tour is knowing what your teachers are teaching – if you can cover those topics, they’ll be very happy to come to and return to your farm.”

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