A Time of Transition

MU Extension specialists are moving materials and building COVID-19-focused resources on alternative platforms

It’s hard to find a more resilient, optimistic person than the American farmer. And as an integral part of the food system, the University of Missouri continues to deliver science-based information for Missouri’s farms.

Zac Erwin, MU Extension livestock specialist

Despite halting all face-to-face programming due to COVID-19, University of Missouri Extension recognizes the continued need to provide university research and knowledge to help farmers and consumers alike. Specialists are creatively transitioning current materials as well as building COVID-19-focused resources on alternative platforms.

“Our mission of serving Missourians remains the same, even though our delivery methods are changing due to COVID-19,” said Rob Kallenbach, Associate Dean of CAFNR Extension and senior program director of Agriculture and Environment Extension. “We are interested in Missourians’ health and safety, just as we are concerned about our specialists’ health and safety.”

As the situation evolves, specialists are focused on staying in contact with the farmers and producers they serve. Those communications are coming in a variety of ways.

“We’re kind of learning as we go here,” said Rusty Lee, agronomy specialist. “I get a lot of phone calls, and that hasn’t changed at all. I’m still answering plenty of questions over the phone. Instead of going out to the farm, though, we’re trying some new methods to stay connected, such as moving a lot of our most important information to electronic formats. We’re sharing this communication instantaneously with our producers, allowing them to have the information they need as soon as possible.”

Technology has played a massive role in the communications shift. Like Lee, specialists are still answering questions over the phone and through email. They are also utilizing tools like Zoom and FaceTime.

“Technology plays a big role in all of this,” Lee said. “Some producers may not be comfortable with Zoom, but almost all of them have FaceTime. A lot of what we do involves identifying an insect, a weed or taking a look at a plant. With FaceTime, we can have a video conference in a producer’s field. Remote diagnostics are a great option for our producers when they have questions.”

For Missourians without access to high-speed internet, specialists try to stay connected through whatever means are easiest for the producer.

“I’m housed in an Extension office that typically sees a lot of foot traffic and phone activity during a day, so it’s been a little surreal to not have people walking in the door often or hearing the phone ring,” Erwin said. “Internally, Extension has moved to ZOOM calls for connecting; however, high-speed internet is still an issue in rural Missouri, and I also deal with a clientele that prefers to make a phone call versus a ZOOM call, so that part really hasn’t changed a lot. My phone still rings and I continue to answer it. Those in the younger generation tend to prefer text communicating, so I do a lot of text communications throughout the day.”

The method change has allowed specialists to try new communication styles and projects as well, such as making instructional videos.

University of Missouri Extension works with Missourians to understand change, solve problems and make informed decisions using university research and science-based knowledge. While programming usually is delivered face-to-face, Lee added current restrictions presented him with opportunities he has wanted to explore previously.

“I’m doing some things that I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Lee said. “For example, sprayer calibration is easy to do and also easy to overlook. A lot of producers don’t understand how important the calibration of a sprayer is. A couple of us are going to create a short video using our phones and iPads. We’ll use social media to help us promote those videos.

“I’m also planning on some longer instructional videos for YouTube. I’ve used YouTube for a good source of education in the past, and this is a great time to revisit that.”

Other specialists are adapting to answer new questions that have been asked during the pandemic. Pat Miller, an agronomy specialist, said she has received numerous questions related to gardening, as consumers follow social distancing protocols and avoid the grocery store.

“I have a Facebook page dedicated to gardening,” Miller said. “There’s some special interest in gardening right now, so I think it’s been important for me to promote how an individual can get started. There’s some uncertainty with the food supply, so individuals are checking out other means.

“Right now, I’m playing around with growing microgreens, which is like growing sprouts but to the next level. I’ve put together some videos and pictures to help people along. It was something I was planning anyway, so the timing is perfect to really dig into this type of work.”

With the planting season fast approaching, Miller said she ramped up communication with farmers and producers in the six counties she serves. She routinely sends out at least one email a week – and is now sending more messages as situations arise.

“I’m almost 65 years old, and a lot has shifted through the years since I started,” she said. “I have a big email list, and it’s been important to keep those folks in the know. A lot of people have my cell phone number as well, and I’m always willing to answer questions there. We’re just doing what we can to stay in touch with everyone.”

MU Extension is also offering town hall meetings via Zoom that are led by agronomy, livestock and horticulture specialists. Registration is required for the free, weekly meetings. Individuals will receive an email with a Zoom link and instructions after they register, and are welcome to submit any questions for the meetings during the registration process.

Supporting Missourians continues to be the focus of MU Extension, especially during this time of uncertainty. Farmers and producers are not only dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the uncertainty of the markets and wet planting conditions.

“The beauty of the American farmer, nationwide, is their can-do spirit,” Lee added. “I think it’s going to be therapeutic to get in the tractor and ride all day. I think a lot of them will welcome the distraction of getting the crop in the ground. MU Extension Specialists are just a phone call away. If you have a question, give us a holler. It might not look like what you remember, but the service is still going to be there. We’ll get through this together.”