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Representatives from three land-grant universities discuss the future of virtual agricultural field days.

Ginger Rowsey, Senior writer

October 8, 2020

4 Min Read
Man looks at computer screen.
Event organizers have touted the expanded reach provided by virtual programming and, in some cases, significant cost savings.Ginger Rowsey

As agricultural field day season draws to a close, it’s easy to feel like it didn’t happen at all. That’s because almost all of the 2020 field days were presented in a virtual format. Whether you attended a live webinar on soybean pests or viewed a YouTube video on pasture management, finding information on the latest and greatest in ag research required some screen time.

And, maybe, that’s not such a bad thing. Producers and consultants have shared that they enjoyed the flexibility of the virtual format and the opportunity to easily view content from other states and regions. Event organizers have touted the expanded reach provided by virtual programming and, in some cases, significant cost savings.

So, are virtual field days here to stay?

Delta Farm Press spoke with representatives from three Southern universities to get the research and Extension take on the pros and cons of virtual field days, as well as the future of ag education delivery in a post-COVID era.

“Virtual field days are a good thing”

“The virtual field days have been a good thing that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tara Smith, director of the Louisiana State University AgCenter Central Region. “Overall, the response to our virtual events has been tremendous, and we know we have increased our reach and subsequent impacts.”

This year was the first year for virtual field days at LSU. Typically, the LSU AgCenter hosts around 10 large regional field days at research stations across the state. When the pandemic struck, faculty and staff had to work quickly to replace the in-person gatherings with eight virtual field days, which are still available to view online.

“I think obviously the biggest advantage of virtual field days is you can reach a much wider audience,” said Michael Salassi, associate vice president with LSU AgCenter. “In addition, you also have a permanent record or presence of the presentations that can be viewed at any time.”

Blake Brown, director of the University of Tennessee Research and Education Center at Milan, also sees the benefits of field days having a continued presence online, particularly the ability to earn pesticide recertification and certified crop advisor points. Brown’s center hosts UT’s largest field day, the Milan No-Till Field Day, which moved online in 2020.

“With 65 presentations, our field day had a lot of those points available, and you can still get them through the end of December,” Brown said. “Previously, visitors had to get as many as they could before the field day ended at 2 p.m. There was no way they could capture all the points being offered.”

A niche for virtual education

“Field days are going on at a busy time of the year for farmers and consultants, who need to see the research or satisfy continuing education requirements,” said Nathan Slaton, assistant director with the Arkansas Experiment Station. “I think there is a niche for virtual education that can be filled by both industry and land grant institutions.”

When the University of Arkansas went virtual, it completely changed its programming from location-based to commodity-based. It hosted four crop field days, Rice, Corn, Soybean and Cotton, each with a live question-and-answer session with presenters.

“We thought it would be a better, more focused approach for the viewer,” Slaton said. “I think what we did was very good, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.”

Sometimes you just need a handshake

While the universities reported receiving mostly positive feedback, the move to virtual was not without criticism. Some concerns involved issues with internet service, but the biggest complaint was lack of human interaction.

“Everyone has been cooped up in some form or fashion since March, and people are really aching at this point to shake someone’s hand and have a face-to-face conversation,” Slaton said. “I’ve heard the remark, ‘I prefer the in-person because I get as much, if not more, out of having conversations with other farmers.’ Those are the things that are missing.”

Brown said the only negative is not having the chance to interact with clientele and have them onsite.

More virtual in the future?

As field day season segues to winter meeting season, more virtual programs are on the horizon. The world has changed since March. Have field days forever changed, too?

“I think the in-person format of field days is critical to continue, as that face-to-face interaction is extremely important, but we can reach a much wider audience using virtual formats,” Salassi said. “My desire would be to use both moving forward.”

Brown would like to do a mix of virtual and face-to-face events.

“We haven’t made a decision on what we’ll do next time, but it’s probably going to be a hard sell to go back to the old way,” Brown said.

About the Author(s)

Ginger Rowsey

Senior writer

Ginger Rowsey joined Farm Press in 2020, bringing more than a decade of experience in agricultural communications. Her previous experiences include working in marketing and communications with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. She also worked as a local television news anchor with the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Tennessee.

Rowsey grew up on a small beef cattle farm in Lebanon, Tennessee. She holds a degree in Communications from Middle Tennessee State University and an MBA from the University of Tennessee at Martin. She now resides in West Tennessee with her husband and two daughters.

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