While the pandemic cut a swath of trouble through the Canadian economy, agriculture — at least on the primary food production front — remained fairly stable.
And while a year’s experience with COVID-19 protocols have many producers looking forward to in-person conversations with everyone from agronomists to bankers, some say the widespread adoption of innovative digital communication platforms are here to stay.
Garrett Sawatzky is one of them. He grows cereals, oilseeds and special crops on the family farm near Altona, MB. He is also a farm management instructor in the University of Manitoba’s Agriculture Diploma Program and a director with Manitoba Pulse and Soybean Growers (MPSG).
He thinks farmers fared relatively well through the last year for a few reasons, not the least of which is that since most agricultural work takes place in naturally isolated environments, farming was mostly business-as-usual in 2020.
But more important, farmers were able to rely on a crop input supply chain that let them do what they do best — grow food without too much interruption. The doors of ag retail outlets may have been locked, but cell phones and Internet links let farmers access what they needed to sow, grow and harvest their crops.
And that digital connectivity was vital on many fronts. Board meetings, ag shows, farm conferences, demonstration trial sites and more were forced to go digital, and, while it wasn’t always smooth sailing by a long chalk, these tools gave farmers quick access to business and agronomic information without having to leave the yard.
THE LESSONS AND LIMITS OF CONNECTIVITY
Poor rural Internet service was, and remains, an enormous challenge for some. Sawatzky says his family was fortunate to have upgraded Internet capacity prepandemic, which gave him stable access to online suppliers and data. It also allowed him to attend MPSG’s online board and committee meetings without the 150-km round trip, and to keep his job as farm management instructor when U of M moved all classes online.
Connectivity helped Tim Gardner do his job, too. A senior market development agronomist with Bayer, Gardner typically spends the growing season organizing and running research plot meetings and tours with retailers and producers.
“I had to rethink the way I operate,” he says. “Seeing is believing and since I couldn’t show people the research, I went to the plots with my phone and iPad. I sent more pictures and in-field videos than ever before. ” The visuals didn’t replicate face-to-face meetings with close-up inspections and time for Q&As, but Gardner says they did deliver the information farmers needed most.
Armed with that experience, Gardner will use digital tech to keep producers informed about what he expects to see in 2021.
The swing towards digital communications platforms makes sense to Sawatzky. “Farming happens almost everywhere in Manitoba and ag students also come from all over the province. Faceto- face meetings and in-person university classes are better, but now we know we can get together remotely.
“The adaptation has been quite impressive and I think we’ll find ways to use the technology to serve people who cannot attend in-person meetings,” he says. “I’m trying to be an optimist in saying that we will be better for what we learned in 2020.”
That’s certainly what’s happening at Ag in Motion, the largest outdoor agriculture show in Western Canada, says Lynda Tityk with Glacier FarmMedia, a sponsor of Ag in Motion. Last year, Tityk led the team that transformed the three-day show near Saskatoon to an all-digital platform released in July.
The experience showed that farm shows don’t have to be confined entirely to the usual parameters of time and space. This year, Ag in Motion plans to produce six digital event days, the first launched on March 24 and the last will go out on December 1. Each “day” is themed and, like a boots-on-the-ground show, some of the programming will be tied to live events (as restrictions allow) and contests, as well as free swag.
Tityk thinks farmers will like the new digital pass that lets them register once, then access the site when it’s convenient for them throughout the year. This greatly expands the hours farmers will be able to access Ag In Motion and help them capitalize on the show’s information covering different topics throughout 2021.
FIGURE OUT WHAT WORKS
“I had to rethink the way I operate. Seeing is believing and since I couldn’t show people the research,I went to the plots with my phone and iPad. I sent more pictures and in-field videos than ever before”
SENIOR MARKET DEVELOPMENT
Since communication is a two-way street, Gardner urges farmers new to digital platforms to call, text and email their questions to trusted advisors. “I also think there’s an onus on people like me to make sure that when we send farmers a video clip or link, we make sure it’s important and we’re not just sending random information to busy people.”
That message gets Sawatzky’s support.
“Screen fatigue is real and we all need to be aware that no one wants to sit in front of a computer for long periods of time. ” He says it’s also important for extension specialists to remember that not every farmer wants a YouTube video or webinar. MPSG usually shares its research data at field days. With that option off the table, the group is releasing data in different formats. “There are farmers who read research studies and farmers who want a webinar. The industry has to look for ways to serve them both,” says Sawatzky.