With COVID-19 restrictions keeping people from gathering, the virtual world has become more populated than ever — even in the most hands-on industry there is.
Agricultural firms and educators alike have made the switch to all-digital offerings over the last month as state after state shuts down non-essential travel. But shifting platforms and programs that have traditionally been offered in-person hasn’t been as easy as turning on a web camera.
John Hemstock, the chief talent and technology officer for Compeer Financial said that shifting Compeer to a digital platform has been done not just in the face of social distancing but over the last several years.
“It’s taken a little bit of time but what we find is that once (farmers) have a chance to use (other online tools), apprehension goes away,” he said.
Compeer Financial is a farm-credit cooperative that has been in Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin for several decades. Its tools to do business, whether that be trading or banking, have shifted online, but in-person client visits have long been a staple of their business. Those have had to change in the wake of the virus.
“We’ve done on-farm service for several decades, so going to sites other than the office has been familiar to us,” Hemstock said.
Compeer has ramped up its phone services, virtual training and virtual banking aspects to keep employees and farmers safe. As planting season approaches, Hemstock said many farmers are apprehensive about how COVID-19 will affect supply chains, but he said at least Compeer’s tools won’t change to manage the operation.
While Hemstock said Compeer sorely misses being able to host events, attend farm shows, and get face-to-face with farmers, it has allowed its employees to return to the old way of meeting new people.
“Good ol’ fashion giving a call and sending them a note,” he said.
The big change for Compeer, and many of the other ag businesses looking to continue to educate and promote, has been the explosion of webinar offerings. Hemstock said he’s watched attendance skyrocket, as many people want to connect in uncertain times. He expects webinars will become a lasting trend and something that’s offered more consistently.
“Keeping everyone’s finger on the pulse is important,” he said.
University Extension educators are also moving their educational talks online.
Lizabeth Stahl, a University of Minnesota Extension crops educator, has been at the forefront of the digital revolution in agriculture since before the viral outbreak. In December, she and her colleagues worked to offer a free webinar series on strategic farming.
Now that more meetings are going online, other Extension teams have reached out to her for help offering the best information during an uncertain time.
Stahl said the biggest change for their upcoming webinars will be that everyone is remotely tuning in, including the educators.
“I’m still nervous on how our internet speeds will work from home,” she said.
She hopes this shift underlines the importance of getting rural broadband up to snuff. Just a few miles from her, folks can’t get a cell signal, let alone a reliable internet line, she said.
“We really do need to get that resolved,” she said.
Even with the rush to adopt online platforms, Stahl said many farmers are taking this major change in stride. Many farmers today are go online for information.
“It’s tough to run a big business without a computer and internet,” she said.
Once the virus runs its course and is contained, she doesn’t foresee a change in how Extension does their work. She expects they’ll go back to in-person meetings.
“There is real value to have things done (that way),” she said.
The newest generation of farmers was well poised for a digital shift. Jennifer McConville, the associate dean at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, said students have been more than accepting of working with professors and educators on the hard switch to online learning.
NCTA, like most every college in the U.S. has made the shift to online learning in the wake of COVID-19. Students were on spring break when they made the call, and the college was able to work with them to recover what they needed from their dorms and return home for the rest of the semester.
“We had to move forward,” she said. “We couldn’t keep meeting in the classroom.”
Online classes meant some hands-on classes would have to be rescheduled while instructors focused on book learning.
NCTA is planning for things to be back to normal by fall semester, and McConville said she hopes students take this experience as just another “tool in the toolbelt” to take with them after college.
They’ll be familiar with business tools like Zoom and build their personal time management skills, she said.
The farms and barns on the NCTA campus haven’t shut down. They area are being manned by students and faculty with only one or two people allowed in each lab at a time.
“It’s all about adapting,” McConville said.