Having a field day: Everyone’s excited about return of in-person learning

Remember when you’d leave home to attend events and get together with experts, friends and peers?

In-person events last year (such as WheatStalk, top left) were rare, and limited in attendee numbers. But this summer, things will be much more like the old days including at AgSmart (bottom) and on Farming Smarter field tours (top right).
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After a year of too many Zoom meetings to count, ag organizations across the province are gearing up for a summer of in-field learning.

“I’m so excited — there’s only so many online meetings that you can stay engaged with,” said Jamie Puchinger, assistant manager of Farming Smarter.

“I cannot wait to get back out into the field with people and see all the different things going on in the plots.”

And every farmer who has ever attended a field day likely feels the same way.

“From what I’m hearing, farmers have had their fill of virtual events unless there’s no other option,” said Brian Kennedy, grower relations and extension co-ordinator with Alberta Wheat and Alberta Barley.

“If it’s a conference in Ontario that they would not normally be able to attend, they’re really happy to join that virtually. If it’s 50 kilometres down the road, they want to go.”

And it’s not just the experts that producers want to hear from — they also want to tap into each other’s expertise, something that field days are perfect for. For example, Foothills Forage and Grazing Association is holding its first in-person grazing management tour of the summer on July 14 with visits to the pastures of Lindon-area producer Jerry Baerg to hear about his rotational grazing strategies as well as those of grazing expert Jim Bauer.

But given the year we’re having, Foothills manager Laura Gibney expected drought management would be the big topic of conversation.

“A lot of pastures are stunted and didn’t get a good start this year. It was too hot and too dry,” she said. “So I think a lot of people will be talking about drought mitigation and marketing. How to plan for that will be coming up a fair bit this summer.”

And those farmer conversations plant seeds that will be harvested further down the line.

“For us at Farming Smarter, that’s where we find the value — talking about what’s going on in the farmers’ fields and what challenges they’re having that we could maybe help address,” said Puchinger.

Many of their research project ideas come from those conversations, she said.

“We sort of use it as our needs assessment — a way for us to engage with the folks who are out doing the work.”

Exactly the same as before

But, of course, normal is the new different.

“I think there’s a little bit of hesitation on some people’s part,” said Puchinger. “But for the most part, everyone is excited. I think everyone is anxious to get back to some sense of normalcy.”

Organizers of events are putting a number of measures in place.

The first AgSmart at Olds College drew attendees keen to get the lowdown on the latest tech from experts such as Felix Weber of AgBusiness & Crop Inc. from Ontario. photo: Sergei Belskie

For example, AgSmart is mixing digital and in-person approaches for its Aug. 10-11 showcase of farm tech at Olds College.

Instead of gathering as a group to hear keynote and plenary speakers, attendees will be given access to a digital platform the night before the event. This allows them to listen to the talks on their own time, and prevents people from gathering in a large group.

“We wanted to give that option, so people could stay spread out across the whole event site,” said event co-manager Stacy Felkar.

There will be 50 educational sessions (on both crops and livestock), and live demonstrations of all kinds of technology from apps to autonomous equipment, with more than 100 exhibits on site. (Info on the presentations and demos can be found at www.agsmartolds.ca.)

Food trucks will be feeding attendees and those wanting to attend both days can rent rooms at the Pomeroy Inn or in campus residences.

“We really focused on health and safety and took that into account in all of our plans when we were building the event plan,” said Felkar.

The entire event is being held outdoors, and there will be sanitizing stations, enhanced cleaning, and contact tracing will be in effect (so everyone must register before being allowed on site).

WheatStalk is taking distancing to a new level — instead of one big event, there will be four smaller ones, in Westlock (July 27), Oyen (July 29), Falher (Aug. 5) and Forestburg. (Aug. 12).

“All are morning shows, from 9 a.m. to noon,” said Kennedy, adding Alberta Wheat has partnered with applied research organizations in each location.

While the events are free, producers must still register as spots are limited and contact tracing info will be required.

Lots and lots to learn

But one thing that isn’t changing is the rich menu of learning experiences.

“We can’t wait to get out there and see everybody and do some hands-on learning again,” said Gibney. “I’m glad we had the virtual option this year, but I’m definitely missing that in-person, hands-on component where you can actually look at the plants and animals.”

The July 14 pasture tour also has a farmer panel (held at Swalwell Hall) on incorporating annual crops into a grazing management plan.

“In that more east country where you have a crossover with cropland, people want to learn how to integrate livestock on crops more, as well as grazing annuals through swath grazing in fall or winter feeds,” said Gibney.

Another event in August will focus more on stewardship, with a tour of A7 Ranche near Nanton, where regenerative agriculture experts Kristine Nichols and Kim Cornish will offer some practical hands-on advice.

“We’ll be looking at the regenerative agriculture story that the A7 has done specific to soil health and soil carbon sequestration,” said Gibney.

Farming Smarter’s first in-person event is its Lethbridge Plot Hop on July 22, which will showcase its research projects, as well as some new technology demonstrations. There will be presentations on cover crops in western Canadian growing conditions, hemp agronomy, precision durum and strip tillage.

There will also be some hot new tech: Croplands Equipment will demonstrate WEED-IT precision spraying technology while Calgary company InteliRain will introduce its micro-zone precision pivot irrigation system.

“We always try and provide everyone with a fantastic day when they’re out in the field,” said Puchinger. “We want them to have fun and be excited about what’s going on in the research.”

Cutting-edge tech is the bread and butter for AgSmart, an event first held two years ago.

“Since we had our event in 2019, there are a lot of new players in the ag tech game. So quite a few of those companies will be exhibiting, speaking and presenting at AgSmart,” said Felkar.

One of those is B.C. software developer OneCup AI.

“They’re doing some really cool stuff with artificial intelligence and facial recognition in livestock. We also have CleanSeed, which is a new seeding technology,” she said. “These are just a couple of examples of new companies that will be engaging in the event on site.”

Attendees will also be able to visit the Olds College Smart Farm and the Technology Access Centre for Livestock Production.”

WheatStalk offerings will vary a bit by location. For example at Westlock, topics include nitrogen use in wheat (Ross Mc-Kenzie), fungicide timing for wheat (Jeremy Boychyn) and extra nitrogen at seeding, plant growth regulators and fungicide (Sheri Strydhorst). They will be joined by Gateway Research Organization manager Sandeep Nain talking about variety trials, and agronomist Kristina Polziehn speaking about early seeding.

The lineup of speakers and topics for other WheatStalk events can be found at albertawheatbarley.com (go to the Media pull-down menu and click on Events). The cereal commissions have a wide range of events being put on by a host of organizations and there is also — for the first time since March of last year — a full What’s Up listing is in the Heartland section of the Alberta Farmer July 12 issue.

Aside from the learning opportunities these events will offer, Gibney hopes they will give producers a chance to recapture the “community feel” they’ve been missing during the pandemic.

“When you’re at an event, you learn from the presenters, but you also learn from the people you visit with at lunchtime,” she said.

“I think that peer learning has been harder to do in a virtual platform, so we’re looking forward to that, and the producers we’ve talked to are definitely looking forward to it, too.”

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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