Field trials will go ahead — but showing them off to farmers will all depend, say the province’s research organizations.
“There’s been a backing off of group activities,” said Allan Hall, executive director of the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta, the umbrella group for six research and two forage associations. “In terms of field work, plans are underway.”
Teams are getting ready to seed trial plots and have hired the regular number of summer staff — with the prep work largely done remotely as staff is mainly working from home.
“For the most part, I don’t think they are anticipating any issues at this point in time, aside from no group gatherings,” said Hall.
North Peace Applied Research Association in Manning, which cancelled its March and April events, has set a tentative schedule for summer field tours — but they won’t go ahead if they pose any risk to attendees or staff, said manager Nora Paulovich.
The organization will be erring on the side of caution.
“Our first day with summer staff will be a session led by a local nurse who sits on our board,” said Paulovich. “It’s going to be very important. We’re bringing on four summer staff, and there are four full-time staff at the research farm.”
The pandemic is presenting a whole set of unusual difficulties. For example, two students sit on the seed drill, but the spaces are not six feet apart, so the system will have to be modified.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Paulovich.
The Chinook Applied Research Association in Oyen has also been revamping its spring seeding plans.
“One of the activities for seeding is weighing out seed for individual plots,” said Dianne Westerlund, the organization’s manager and a forage agronomist. “Part of our protocol there is going to be separate work stations. Last spring, we had scales three feet apart on a workbench and two people weighing. Now two technicians are going to be 20 feet apart instead of right beside each other.”
The provincial Field Crop Development Centre has also changed some of its processes to accommodate social distancing, said Flavio Capettini, head of research. Staff who are able to work from home have been doing so, and those who can’t have been shifted around the centre’s offices and other facilities to maintain some distance between them.
“We’re getting ready for planting, but we’ve changed our routines for working, keeping our social distance,” he said. “With the farm, we’re lucky we have enough space to stay six feet or more apart. It’s a whole new experience, but it’s working really well.”
Capettini expects that field plot seeding will proceed as normal and that there won’t be any disruptions to any of the ongoing research at the Lacombe centre.
“For now, we don’t expect to have major delays, unless something changes,” said Capettini. “Our main fear is that somebody will get infected, so we’re being very conscious of what we’re doing. We’re continuing to do our work with the least risk for our employees.”
Funding is another challenge for some groups.
North Peace Applied Research Association gets some funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership. Part of that money was for extension events that the organization will no longer be able to do.
The group is being encouraged to do webinars, but a lot of its outreach is still up in the air. Westerlund’s organization is also planning to reach producers by webinar.
“It’s not reaching a huge audience initially, but the webinars are recorded and made available, so hopefully people will get use out of those webinars as time goes on,” she said.
Last year, the group recorded many of its webinars and found producers did watch them on their own schedules.
“At this point, a couple of the events that we have planned are on hold just to see how things shake out in the next couple of months,” said Westerlund. “I’m feeling that summer events are probably not going to happen. I don’t have a big comfort level with the time frame we’re dealing with.”
The group has been brainstorming on how to conduct a virtual crop walk. The idea is to make a video of a crop tour with someone providing commentary. People would then be able to email or call back with questions after watching the video.
The research associations are also sharing ideas.
“Farming Smarter has shared what it has put together,” said Westerlund. “It has put together its plans in terms of assigning vehicles to certain teams, and minimizing the impact should someone get sick.”
Getting field trials underway on time is critical, she added.
“If we lose April and May field work, that throws us off for the rest of the year,” she said.
But Westerlund is taking a philosophical attitude.
“It’s been a year of changes, with changes within Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and funding changes, and changes with the new farmer-led research model moving forward,” she said. “In addition to COVID-19, there’s a lot of other things that have made life interesting.”