More than 50 years ago, farmers in Beaufort, Hyde, Washington and Tyrrell counties faced unique struggles as they worked to farm land that had recently been reclaimed from the swamp. In 2020, the challenge was how Extension could rescue a 50-year-old tradition celebrating how generations of these farmers have learned to work the unusual, high-organic black soil, transforming their fields into the rich farmland that it is known for today.
Restrictions on large gatherings brought about by the coronavirus pandemic threatened to put the brakes on the highly anticipated 50th annual Blackland Farm Managers Tour, which had been expected to draw 700 farmers and experts to view university research projects in process, trade advice, network and socialize. Other traditional events throughout the state, including field days, farm tours, research demonstrations and expos that also bring out a crowd, faced a similar fate.
Though there is no substitute for the hands-on activities and camaraderie, Extension staff decided to pursue the next best thing—virtual versions of the events that relied on custom videos to inform and alternatively engage the participants. The expertise of many Extension staff and the willingness of others to learn on the fly turned the sidelined events into virtual get-togethers.
Rod Gurganus, Extension director in Beaufort County and a key organizer of the August 2020 Blacklands event, said, “I hope the silver lining is that people who have not experienced the Blackland Farm Managers Tour can participate because it is virtual.” The tour videos have received almost 3,500 views on YouTube.
The Small Grains Field Day at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury was another open-house-style event retooled due to the restrictions on group gatherings. Extension’s small grains staff—trained in plant pathology, plant physiology and soil science—took on the added role of video crew, recording everything that would have been presented in person. In nine videos, they put together information that normally would have been presented face-to-face to about 100 people from across the region, including conventional row farmers and industry partners such as regional agronomists, Extension agricultural agents, soil and water conservationists and seed company representatives. The main video has had nearly 2,000 views on YouTube.
Extension has now curated a Virtual Events library covering topics including Christmas trees, corn, cotton, fruit and vegetable, grain peas, hemp, peanuts, small grains, soybeans, tobacco and turfgrass among other topics.
Jenny Carleo, Extension area specialized agent, relied on past expertise she brought to her current position to accommodate the new twist on field days. She had already been producing Extension videos on topics like cover crops and pre-plant fertility. Though traditional field days will likely always be a staple of Extension outreach, Carleo is already thinking beyond in-person events. “Field days are great for Q&A, but you’re standing in a field showing growers a snapshot of a project. I’m using video to capture the entire research project. We have this amazing advantage this year to intentionally capture the whole growing season and data analysis and then package and release it over the winter.”
Carleo wants to add drone footage and data visualization to the viewer experience. “Growers can see variations in a field or clusters of pest problems. And it’s a new way to illustrate static data we already have from combines,” she said.
In a way, the virtual events are one more piece of a digital revolution in Extension. For example, the Piedmont station uses a robot to feeds calves and software programs that allow employees to remotely check data about livestock using a smartphone. Online videos will be another valuable tool for specialists and agents to deliver the most up-to-the-minute content to their clientele.
“As farms get bigger and farmers’ time gets busier, these videos do allow us to present more information and get it out quickly,” said four-county N.C. Cooperative Extension agent, Tim Hambrick.