Most every winter, Alberta farmers find themselves hitting the highways to get the latest and greatest in learning at farm conferences and meetings.
This year, though, they’re covering that ground on the information superhighway instead.
“Normally as a farmer, I’m attending events in the summer and wintertime, and this year, I didn’t get to experience that,” said Janine Paly, who farms near Thorhild.
“Every year, I think it’s so exhausting. But this year, I missed it.”
Before COVID-19, getting info on new research, agronomy, and marketing meant going to conferences, crop tours, and regional meetings. Now it’s doing tours over Zoom and watching conferences from the comfort of their couch.
But it’s not the same.
“It was really hard to stay on top of learning because all of these events weren’t happening,” said Nathan Stamp, farm operations manager at Stamp Seeds near Enchant. “It was hard to stay up to date on stuff. But now being into the slower season, it’s getting easier.”
It hasn’t been all bad, he added.
Normally at this time of year, Stamp attends the Farming Smarter conference in Lethbridge, but this year’s conference is online — and that gave him a chance to attend an additional virtual conference that same week, this one out of Iowa.
“That was kind of neat. It opens up the window to allow agronomists and farmers to learn all over North America,” said Stamp, who’s on the board of Farming Smarter.
“You don’t have to physically be there. Now you can take in those events virtually. It’s an opportunity to learn something different compared to what you can drive to. It allows that flexibility.”
Online can be ‘exhausting’
Paly is also attending digital learning events, but limiting her screen time to sessions under a couple of hours.
“I’m slowly taking in these digital platforms, but I’m actually tired of that way of transferring knowledge,” said Paly, who is vice-chair of Gateway Research Organization. “It’s exhausting taking in a full-day conference or even a webinar. So I’m definitely limiting what I’m taking in and really trying to focus on the types of learning opportunities that I want to focus on.”
That’s mostly webinars put on by producer commissions and local applied research associations. The events are usually free for members to attend, and Paly always finds the information “unbiased and extremely informative.”
“These groups are really well known for their extension activities,” she said. “Right now, if you go on to their websites, they’re offering a huge amount of learning and webinars for farmers.
“They offer a wide range of options that farmers can take in — I’ve taken in environmental webinars, financial webinars, agronomy webinars.”
Time is also a factor for farmer Leonard Desharnais — he just doesn’t have enough of it to attend a lot of live virtual events.
“I haven’t done any online development this year. I’ve been invited to some, but I haven’t had time to take part in any so far,” said Desharnais, who farms near Falher.
“What would be nice is if they recorded it and then gave you a chance to watch it later. That would be more convenient.”
Instead, he’s turned to farm-related podcasts.
“Instead of listening to your radio if you’re on the road, you can download them on to your phone and listen to them while you’re on the road,” said Desharnais, vice-chair of SARDA Ag Research. “You’ve got the time to just listen then.”
Desharnais has also been flipping through farm magazines and papers when he has some downtime.
“I get Country Guide and Grainews, and if there are articles I like, I’ll read them more than once,” he said. “If I think there’s some good knowledge I should keep, I’ll try to keep them in a binder or scrapbook so I can go over them again later on.
“It’s nice to read about these things and see how they’ll work for me. I think there’s always room for improvement.”
Paly has also found herself turning to print publications for more of her learning this year.
“With COVID, I’m almost technology drained, so I actually found that I’m reading a lot more,” she said. “Sometimes we’re not really tech savvy, and if that’s not the way you want to learn, publications are another avenue to explore. When it comes in the mail, give it a read. Don’t just put it in the recycling bin.”
Simon Lavoie has another low-tech way of getting the information he needs this year — picking up the phone.
“We’ve been gathering information by calling lots of farmers,” said the St. Isidore producer, who is chair of SARDA. “That’s the best way to keep open communication — talk to your reps in the area, talk to local farmers. Word gets around.”
The telephone offers something digital learning events can’t do as easily: The chance to connect with other farmers and share lessons learned.
“The one thing that’s hard is you don’t get the personal chatting before or after sessions,” said Stamp. “That’s the downside, and a lot of people are missing that these days. In person, you get to meet new people and learn different things from different farmers and agronomists and other people in the industry you normally wouldn’t if you don’t go to events in person.”
Steve Kenyon misses that, too.
“The networking behind those conferences and seminars is where I got most of my education,” said Kenyon, a custom grazer from the Busby area. “You go to the conference, you get a couple of gold nuggets from the presenters, and then you talk to some producers, brainstorm, and get a great idea out of it.
“That’s missing big time this year.”
As a result, Kenyon, who is also a popular speaker, has been hosting a weekly networking event over Zoom through Gateway Research Organization to give people a chance to connect and ask questions — something that’s been missing from the online events he’s attended.
“Every Wednesday night, we’re going to have a different topic and maybe a different guest speaker come in,” said Kenyon, who is also a GRO director. “We’re not going to do any presentations — we’re going to introduce a subject and then we’re just going to open it up for questions. For an hour, we’re just going to answer questions.”
He hopes that will inspire other Alberta farmers to keep building their skills and their networks, even in a year like this one when it’s a little harder.
“It’s important to me to keep learning. You get stagnant if you don’t.”
“We always have to keep learning and stay ahead of the game,” she said. “That’s sometimes a challenge as a farmer. We get caught up in our daily activities, but we have to set time aside to learn.”