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Virtual APRES meeting sees benefits

Shelley E. Huguley swfp-shelley-huguley-martin-peanuts-20-harvestjpg.jpg
The Joe Suggs Graduate Student competition, 'the largest ever.'

When he took office last July as American Peanut Research and Education Society President during the annual conference, Gary Schwarzlose said he hoped the 2020 conference would be the first and last virtual one.

He says it was a hard decision, but the APRES conference planning committee agreed that the 2021 conference would also be virtual.

He also contends that lessons learned from COVID-19 restrictions over the last 18 months will influence how organizations conduct conferences, seminars, and business meeting going forward.

See, A plant pandemic: 'Plants get sick, too' 

In opening remarks to the 2021 APRES conference July 13, Schwarzlose said APRES and other agriculture entities will get through the pandemic, “grow stronger, and move on.

“Virtual meetings may be here to stay in some form,” he says. He sees advantages to having the option of virtual sessions. “Being able to expand to new attendees is a big reason. Financial consideration is also a factor.”

He expects to see hybrid conference in the future, combinations of in-person and virtual opportunities.

He also notes some positive results from the 2021 virtual sessions. “We had 254 attendees on the first day, up from 243 last year. We had 165 papers submitted, up from 117 last year.

“The Joe Suggs Graduate Student competition was the largest ever,” he says. “And we split the competition into two categories, Masters’ students and Ph.D. candidates. We also had a new sponsor, the National Peanut Board. The North Carolina Peanut Growers Association continues to sponsor the competition as well.”

More student participation

Schwarzlose says students from several foreign countries, including Ghana, Zambia, China, and Malawi, were able to compete because of the virtual format.

“Graduate students are the future of APRES,” he says. “They are also the future of the industry. We stress the importance of grad student presentations at our conferences. It offers them the opportunity for exposure and to get to know people in the industry. Our grad student organization has become a voice within the organization.”

See, Students present from their homes in Africa at peanut conference

Schwarzlose complimented Bob Kemerait, University of Georgia Extension plant pathologist and chairman of the grad student competition, for his longtime support and direction of the program. “Bob lives for this.,” he says.

Benefits aside, Schwarzlose says he looks forward to an in-person meeting in 2022.

“It was a hard decision to go virtual again this year,” he says. “The board decided to survey members and determine the best options.”

He says they considered a virtual, an in-person, or a hybrid conference. They considered what’s happening in the industry, what’s happening with COVID-19 infection rates, CDC guidelines, whether industry representatives would be comfortable meeting in large groups, and if they would be comfortable bringing their families.

Best option available

“We did not get 100% consensus,” he says. “But a virtual conference seemed to be the best option. I think it was the right decision.”

See, Aflatoxin costs peanut industry millions annually

Pulling it off was not easy. “It took a lot of effort, brain power, and planning to put a virtual conference together. And we are holding our breaths every time a speaker starts a presentation and every time we transition to the next one. We know we will have glitches.”

He credits APRES Executive Officer Kim Cutchins for making it work. “She did an amazing job of putting the website together, organizing the papers, the reports and making it all work.

“Kim is the backbone of APRES. This conference happens because of her. She makes us a successful organization.”

He also mentioned Perrine Kemerait for her efforts on logistics and committee members Dave Jordan, program chair, and Jeff Dunne, technical program chair, for their work in putting together an extraordinary agenda. He also praised Allison Floyd for her efforts in “coordinating the quarterly newsletter.”

Things to forget

 Schwarzlose says he looks back on the last 18 months and sees things he’d just as soon forget, such as: “The whole pandemic; quarantining and social distancing; masks, gloves and hand sanitizer; limited or total travel restrictions; loss of freedom; and, tragically, loss of lives.”

He’s looking forward to better days. “I’m looking forward to APRES 2022 and face-to-face meetings, handshakes, hugs and laughter. I look forward to friendly discussions. Those are important to what we do as an organization. I look forward to congratulating, in person, our 2020 and 2021 award winners. And I look forward to all the peanut munchies available at our in-person conferences.”

The 2022 conference is scheduled for July 10-15 at the Omni Las Colinas (Dallas, Texas, area).

“We want to forget about 2020 and COVID-19,” he adds. “We don’t want to be part of another pandemic, but we need to be prepared for it. We will get through this.”

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