GRINNELL, Iowa — The room at Roger Van Donselaar’s farm at the edge of town is full of farmers. They are here for a field day about cover crops sponsored by Iowa State University Extension, among others.
In other words, they are here to learn.
It’s a truism that education doesn’t end with a high school or college graduation, that it is a lifelong effort. For farmers, this has probably always been true. That’s really why the Extension service was formed so many years ago. But today’s farmers are learning in all different ways.
Today they are learning at an old-fashioned field day. Last year this event would have been held virtually. In other circumstances farmers may be pursuing an advanced degree or may be taking classes at a community college. They may be talking to private industry representatives.
It all works, according to education specialists.
“We all try to fill the gaps,” says Travis Lautner, an instructor in the agriculture program at Des Moines Area Community College.
At DMACC, Lautner works with a college farm and with post-high school students, as well as with adults. As is the case with many community colleges, there are partnerships with private industry and with the state department of agriculture. DMACC has hybrid trials, a wetland and other efforts.
“The farm is a working lab,” Lautner says.
Educators at every level spent much of the past year and a half dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that led to dramatic changes in how they tried to get information to farmers.
“We did pivot to virtual education,” says Liz Ripley, an Extension specialist at ISU.
Rebecca Vittetoe, ISU Extension field agronomist, is at today’s field day, where she talks to the crowd of farmers about cover crops. She says Extension experts are working now to figure out what changes that were made due to COVID should remain and which ones should be changed back. There is value to in-person field days, she says. But there is also value in being able to get information to many farmers quickly and inexpensively through Zoom meetings and online videos.
“We’re trying to find that happy balance,” she says.
After Vittetoe talks to the farmers today, telling them about research and about general cover crop advice from the university, two farmers talk. Van Donselaar tells about his work with cover crops, as does Mike Phillips, who farms a county away. Phillips shows pictures of the cover crops at his farm. Both men talk about their experiences and answer questions.
That farmer-to-farmer conversation is important, Vittetoe says.
Phillips agrees. He says farmers like to hear about what has worked for other farmers. And he says he is still learning about cover crops, even after using them for years.
Today’s lessons are about what types of cover crops to plant and how to manage them, as well as about the benefits of cover crops. It is also about the specific challenges farmers face this year, such as dry field conditions that could impact fall cover crop seeding and growth.
At the end of the discussion, several farmers stay behind to talk to the farmer presenters.
Sometimes, Ripley says, that’s what education looks like — a conversation in a field.