When many programs and institutions started closing at the beginning of the pandemic, Iowa Learning Farms' leadership team made a bold choice to increase its outreach efforts through expansion of its webinar program. Stepping up from the once-a-month frequency it had followed since 2011, ILF quickly moved to weekly webinars at the end of March 2020. One year later, ILF has produced more than 50 unique webinars and seen dramatically increased audience size and participation when compared to previous years.
The webinar subjects have ranged from specific farming practices to economic, wildlife and environmental topics. Taking place each Wednesday at noon, the hourlong webinars have become a staple of regular consumption for many participants.
"We believe delivering a new webinar every week at the same time has made it convenient for participants to set aside time to learn," says Jacqueline Comito, ILF director. "In addition, we've streamlined the production and implemented a moderator to help manage presentation slides and handle the questions on behalf of the presenter. And Matt Helmers does a great job of running the show."
Hosted by ISU's Helmers, the popularity of the webinar series has been demonstrated through a near doubling of attendance. The weekly webinars in 2020 drew an average audience of 93 attendees each, while the monthly webinars in 2019 averaged 49 attendees. In addition, the first four webinars in 2021 had more than 100 attendees each. Views of archived webinars have increased as well, but it is unclear if they are all unique viewers or live-event participants reviewing what they heard.
ILF conducted a survey of participants to learn about the audience and what may be contributing to increased attendance. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents self-identified as farmers and landowners. Seventy-seven percent live in Iowa, and the remainder were from 20 different states, Puerto Rico and Canada. And interestingly, before 2020, nearly half had never attended an ILF webinar.
"The first-time attendance number is interesting, but the repeat attendance is even more exciting," Comito says. "While the percentage of people who attended one or two webinars stayed about the same, those attending three to ten rose from 18% to 60%, and for attending 10 or more per year from about 5% to 13%. This tells us we are offering quality content that is bringing people back over and again."
The positive response to the program is getting noticed across and outside of Iowa. According to Comito, not only has ILF brought in presenters from around the Midwest to address unique topics relevant to Iowa, word has spread throughout the various advocacy, research and education communities, generating numerous requests to present on the platform.
Survey respondents also gave high-quality ratings to the programs, with more than 98% rating the webinars they attended as "good" or "excellent." Attendees also overwhelmingly stated that the webinars were a good use of their time, that they learned new information, and 97% indicated that they learned about new initiatives, resources and tools.
Survey respondents were asked to rank favorite webinars. The diversity of the most highly ranked topics reflects that broad interests among participants. The rankings are:
- "Mapping Tile Drain Systems: Using Technology to Find Grandpa's Tile" with Kevin Erb
- "Scaling up Oxbow Wetland Restorations for Multiple Benefits" with Karen Wilke
- "Finding the Right Fit for Soil Health Practices" with Abbey Wick
- Tie between "Cover Crops for Better Corn and Soybeans" with Sarah Carlson and "Long-Term Impacts of 4R Nitrogen Management Practices and Cover Crops on Nitrate-N Loss" with Matt Helmers
- Tie between "Enhancing Monarch Butterfly Conservation in Iowa" with Steven Bradbury and "Can Moments of Awe and Gratitude Improve the Environment?" with Jacqueline Comito
All ILF webinars are archived and available for viewing at iowalearningfarms.org. The page also has a Click-to-Connect link to join the live webinars.
"It seems that providing a weekly lunch-and-learn opportunity is a winning formula that appeals to many Iowans, and we are eager to continue providing this service," Comito says. "The list of potential topics and presenters keeps growing, and we are always interested to hear what our audience members would like to see on the schedule. We encourage everyone to explore the archives or to join the next webinar on Wednesday at noon."
Pierce is an Extension program specialist with a focus on water quality with Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks.