SRU students learn remotely from farmer presenting in the field


Farmer in his field on a virtual class

William Thiele, a dairy farmer from Butler County, uses his smartphone to video stream aspects of farming and sustainable agriculture to Slippery Rock University students enrolled in a Sustainability in Food and Hospitality course that is being offered online this semester.

Oct. 12, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Slippery Rock University students taking an online class might not be able to gather as a group to visit an expert in the field, so an expert literally standing out in the field is coming to them. That's the premise of "Farmer Fridays," where a guest farmer conducts synchronous online presentations for SRU's Sustainability in Food and Hospitality course.

"In some ways, with Zoom and online classes, I'm able to do more because I can bring people in from all over the world," said Mary Jo Ross, associate professor of hospitality, event management and tourism. Ross teaches the Sustainability in Food and Hospitality class that provides students a broad overview of food sustainability in the U.S. and its local and global impact.

The class meets online, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9 a.m., but on eight of those Fridays, the students are joined by William Thiele, a sixth-generation dairy farmer who uses the Zoom app on his smartphone from his 300-acre family farm in Cabot, Butler County.

Farmer explaining a process

"I'm pretty tech savvy, although I'm 27 so I ought to be," Thiele said with a grin. "I thought, 'Well, I don't have to get cleaned up and go to SRU,' and it's simple enough where I can show the students what I'm doing and why I'm planting a certain crop or using a certain feed. I'm bringing the farm to the students virtually, since they can't be there.

"I just thought this would be something interesting and beneficial for the everyone. For the most part, the general public has no idea what we do (as farmers)."

While it's unlikely that any of the students in the class will take up farming, Ross recognizes the importance of hospitality professionals needing to understand farming and make connections that they can apply in their careers.

"The most fundamental, humanistic thing that people in the hospitality industry do is feed people," said Ross, who has spent nearly her entire career as an event producer before also becoming a professor 20 years ago. "It behooves us to understand the food supply chain and what's involved to make a hamburger or any of the food we are serving."

Ross said this knowledge helps hospitality professionals do things such as develop a restaurant menu for seasonal products or use a farm-to-table approach where restaurants acquire food directly from the producers or an agricultural cooperative.

"There's a job market out there in the food and beverage industry that is far beyond being a restaurant manager," said Ross, who herself was a one-time restaurant manager. "Even though restaurants are having challenges right now (during the pandemic), the good news is that the hospitality industry will come back because you're dealing with humans, and food is one thing we cannot live without. The more that we understand our food supply, the more that we're able to protect it and promote it, and that's a win-win for everybody."

Through Farmer Fridays, Thiele shows students the front line of the food supply chain from his farm. He uses wireless earphones and flips the camera on his smartphone from selfie-mode when he's speaking to front-facing mode to show the class his machinery, the silos and other scenes from the farm, such as the roots of cover crops as he pulls them out of the ground. Cover crops are planted to cover and improve soil in seasons and areas where cash crops like corn or soybeans are not harvested.

Other topics Thiele addresses include crop rotations, fertilization and dairy production, which at the Thiele Farm includes milking half of the nearly 80 head of cattle. He also uses innovative approaches to farming such as drones to evaluate his crops.

"Just by driving by our farm, people aren't exactly sure what it is we do," Thiele said. "You can see that we're planting corn or soybean and we have dairy cattle, but there's a lot more that goes into it. (Because farming used to be a common profession in the area) a lot of people are now generations removed from the farm and a lot of that information was not passed down, but it's important to teach people about agriculture because everybody eats and everybody needs to know where their food comes from. Only now, on the farm, we have to do things a little differently in order to create more sustainability in agriculture."

Farmer participating in a virtual class

"I really love the Farmer Fridays, especially living in a world where, right now, we don't get out as often," said Breanne Dallies, a sophomore resort, recreation and hospitality management major from New Waterford, Ohio. "We have the opportunity to see a farm perspective and (William) does a really good job of showing us the things that we wouldn't otherwise get to see and explaining them. We learn about all the reports and testing that goes into farming. I never realized how much planning and scientific knowledge is involved. Now, when I see farms, I have a greater appreciation for what they are and what they do."

Dallies, an aspiring event manager, said one of the ways that Farmer Fridays will benefit her is in passing along the supply chain knowledge to consumers so they understand what they are paying for.

"Farming is a very delicate ecosystem that effects a lot of communities, and providing education is a priority for farmers," Ross said. "William was so thrilled that I wanted to have him join the class."

Ross was connected to Thiele through the partnership that she helped establish between SRU and the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau, an organization that also partners with the Butler County Farm Bureau to offer the public educational farm tours. In addition to partnering with more farmers, Ross is planning to offer students in her program access to other local businesses and industry experts in Butler County through the BCT&CB partnership.

For more information about SRU's hospitality, event management and tourism programs, visit the department's webpage.

MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 |