Extension and Outreach Connects in New Ways

Just three days after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to be a pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a national emergency. In the weeks and months that followed, the agriculture community across Iowa and the nation experienced challenges and setbacks of historic proportions.

Meat processing plants scaled back production and some temporarily closed, supply chain disruptions caused dairy farmers to drain milk and farmers hungry for information and support were unable to meet in person for fear of becoming infected or infecting others.

Recognizing the need for help, the faculty and staff of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Agriculture and Natural Resources found new and innovative ways to connect with Iowans and provide answers to problems never before seen.

In a normal year, the field days at Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms serve as a hub of information and idea sharing. When in-person meetings couldn’t happen, the research continued, and the outreach team got creative.

“Instead of people coming to us this year, we went to them with the same information,” says Angie Rieck-Hinz, field agronomist, who helped organize a series of online research farm field days Aug. 31-Sept. 4.

Attendance over the five-day event topped 1,000, with many people logging on multiple days. Topics included water quality, fungicide trials, long-term tillage and nutrient placement. The virtual field day series reached people who do not traditionally attend field days, such as landowners who live in other states and people who work off the farm.

As federal help became available, financial experts worked to interpret and explain the options available. Programs like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) provided much-needed relief, but producers needed clarity about their options and availability. More than 500 people attended a COVID-19 webinar in April about farm management and ag law issues and 571 attended the CFAP Webinar in May.

“I was proud to see how quickly our team became experts on new options and turned this information around,” says Ann Johanns, program specialist. “Attendees were very appreciative of getting to hear how this impacted them.”

Extension economists partnered with the Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation to deliver timely answers to questions about available resources, deadlines and eligibility.

Faced with supply chain disruptions and a lack of places to send livestock, veterinarians and animal science experts helped find innovative ways to stretch the finishing window for their livestock and avoid the need for mass depopulation. Nearly 400 people attended the live recording of a webinar on slowing the growth of swine, presented by the Iowa Pork Industry Center at Iowa State. And, nearly 800 registered for a four-part series on pork producer recovery in August and September.

In the initial weeks of the pandemic markets swung wildly and producers turned to crop and livestock economists for insight. Lee Schulz, associate professor in economics and livestock economist, was contacted by local, national and global media reporters — all looking for an explanation about the impact to animal agriculture and the nation’s food supply.

According to one report, more than 1.7 billion readers were reached by Iowa State agricultural economists via national and international media during the pandemic. Chad Hart, professor in economics and extension grain markets specialist, says the interviews were important for farmers who needed information, and they also provided outreach and education for people unfamiliar with agriculture.

“It became a global story very quickly,” says Hart. “Everyone wanted to know what was happening, especially as the meat plant closures were happening.”

Taking advantage of online education was key to a successful year for Iowa Learning Farms and the youth environmental outreach program Water Rocks!. Iowa Learning Farms moved to weekly webinars — compared to their usual monthly programming — and participation more than doubled to around 100 participants a week.

Water Rocks! offered outdoor school visits across the state this fall. Jacqueline Comito, director of Iowa Learning Farms, says finding new ways of delivery and engagement “was critical” for both programs and for Iowans who depend on information about the environment and protecting resources.

“We really believe in what we’re doing, and we wanted to be out there delivering this important message in creative ways,” Comito says. “In a situation like this, you have to see the positive. I think going forward we will continue to see opportunities for online engagement.”