Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 14, Issue 1 - June, 2021

Educating Traditional Clientele with Non-Traditional Methods: Virtual Agriculture Production Meetings Engage Producers and Measure COVID-19 Impacts at the Farm Level

Kness, A.A., Agriculture Agent, University Of Maryland Extension, Harford County
Dill, S.P., Principal Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Talbot County
Rhodes, J.L., Principal Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Queen Anne County
Crowl, E.N., Agriculture Agent Associate, University of Maryland Extension, Baltimore County
Nichols, K.M., Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Montgomery County
Hirsh, S.M., Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Somerset County
Wang, C., Coordinator of Program Development and Evaluation, University of Maryland, College Park
Zobel, E., Agriculture Agent Associate, University of Maryland Extension, Dorchester County
Leslie, A.W., Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Charles County
Butler, B.R., Principal Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Carroll County
Beale, B.E., Principal Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, St. Marys County
Myers, R.D, Principal Agriculture Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Anne Arundel County

ABSTRACT

During the winter of 2020-2021, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Maryland Extension (UME) implemented its first series of winter crop production meetings that were entirely virtual. A total of nine meetings were held, with meetings themed around both agronomy and fruit and vegetable production. An evaluation tool was developed by UME educators to include specific questions to gather data on the efficacy of virtual programming and the impacts of COVID-19 on farming operations. A total of 949 individuals attended the meetings. Over 88% of survey respondents indicated that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the virtual winter meeting format, and rated their interest in continuing virtual programming as an 8.3 on a 10-point scale (1= little interest, 10= very interested). When asked how COVID-19 affected their farm, the greatest impacts were noted in worker safety, access to labor, and stress levels. These data will help UME and other institutions plan future virtual programs and offer insight into how the COVID-19 pandemic affected agricultural producers and their farming operations.


Introduction

University of Maryland Extension (UME) winter production meetings are traditional events held annually that occur around the state providing timely educational topics, new research findings, and credit hours necessary for farmer certifications. These events are a major activity in Extension outreach and education and annually serve over 1,200 participants statewide. Historically, producers will attend meetings if they feel that the information provided will address their specific needs, improve farm profitability and sustainability (Torrell et al., 1999).

During the summer of 2020, it became evident that in-person events may not be an option and Extension Educators should plan to move events virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A committee was created to develop the program, logistics, and evaluation. Over the past few years, the evaluation of winter meetings has provided educators and the Extension Agriculture and Food Systems program important data related to outcomes and impacts. As stated by Majumdar et al. (2020) “event evaluations are the low-hanging fruits and such opportunities should not be lost."

The UME winter meeting planning committee decided to add additional questions this year related to online learning and COVID-19 impacts at the farm level. Results from this evaluation will provide, for the first time, an extensive dataset related to the acceptance and effectiveness of virtual programming for traditional agricultural clientele in the areas of agronomy and vegetable and fruit production, as well as information on how COVID-19 has impacted their farming operations. 


Methods

The University of Maryland Extension held a total of nine virtual crop production meetings over the course of December 2020 to February 2021. As in years past, these meetings were tailored for two primary categories of farming clientele; agronomic producers and fruit and vegetable producers. Unlike years past, these meetings were held strictly online via the web-based conferencing platform, Zoom. Sessions were recorded for viewing at a later time.

These meetings were either morning or evening sessions, all lasting four hours in order to meet the requirements for pesticide private applicator recertification as well as nutrient management training. At the conclusion of each meeting, an email was sent to all participants asking them to complete a program evaluation and a follow-up reminder email was sent one week after the meeting. Additionally, an incentive was added to increase the likelihood of survey response (Coryn et al., 2019).

The program evaluation was designed and administered through Qualtrics and received Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval. The evaluation contained likert-type questions related to the participants perception of the value of the program to their agricultural operation. Traditional questions related to dollar value of the program to their operation and plans to change or implement new practices were included. However, for the first time, new questions related to the impact of COVID-19 on farming operations were included. 

The data collected in the surveys were analyzed as a whole. Realizing that COVID-19 may have impacted some farms differently than others, the agronomy attendees and fruit and vegetable attendees were separated using the Qualtrics filtering function. Their results were then compared to see if there were statistical differences between the groups by using an Independent-Samples t-Test with agronomy and fruit and vegetable groups as independent variables.

 

Results and Discussion

A total of 960 individuals attended the winter crop production webinars (Figure 1) either live or viewed later via recording and 607 evaluations were distributed. Of the 444 evaluation responses, 330 attended agronomy sessions and 150 attended fruit and vegetable sessions. Some individuals attended both agronomy and fruit and vegetable meetings, which accounts for the 36 response difference in total responses. Producers farming for more than 20 years comprised the majority of respondents (48%), with 17% farming ten years or less, and 9% farming between 11-20 years. The second largest group in the survey at 26% were agricultural service providers.

 

Figure 1. Screenshot of University of Maryland Extension virtual winter crop production meeting.

 

When asked to rate their learning experience from attending this University of Maryland meeting, 88% ranked their experience as either “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” Participants were also asked to rate their interest in continuing to participate in virtual winter crop production meetings in the future, with 1 being least interested and 10 being of greatest interest. The mean response was 8.30 with a standard deviation of 1.90 (n=348). Participants also had the option to include comments on the virtual learning platform, which were generally positive and included such comments as “[I] liked the online format,” and “please continue these in the future.” 

To determine how COVID-19 has affected farms and farmers in Maryland, participants were asked to indicate how COVID-19 has impacted their farm in six different areas:

  1. Day-to-day activities
  2. Supply chain slowdowns/shortages
  3. Markets and market prices
  4. Workforce (access to labor)
  5. Stress level and health
  6. Worker safety/access to personal protective equipment

 

These questions were assessed on a five-point, Likert scale, where 1= decreased a lot, 3= no change, and 5= increased a lot. Data from the above questions were aggregated to look at differences from “no change” (Table 1). The greatest proportion of respondents indicating an increase over “no change” related to COVID-19 impacts on the farm were related to personal stress levels (65%) and worker safety (59%). A significant proportion of respondents indicated no change in the day-to-day activities on the farm (52%) and farm workforce/access to farm labor (64%); however, 28% report a decrease in access to farm labor compared to 7% reporting an increase. Markets and supply chain questions were split approximately evenly between all three categories.

 

Table 1. COVID-19 impact on farming operations reported as a percentage of no change, overall decrease, or overall increase.

Please share how COVID-19 has impacted you or your farm’s... Overall Decrease No Change Overall Increase
Day to day activities 28% 52%* 21%
Supply chain slowdowns and shortages 29% 32% 37%
Markets and farm prices 26% 36% 37%
The farm workforce (access to labor) 28% 64% 7%
Stress level and health 7% 38% 65%
Worker/personal safety and Personal Protective Equipment 4% 42% 59%

*Bolded values indicate the majority response to each question.

 

In order to compare responses between the agronomy and fruit and vegetable groups, responses were compared and reported as means, with statistical differences separated by an Independent Samples t-Test. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly decreased the fruit and vegetable operator’s access to farm labor compared to the agronomy group (p=0.024), which uses mostly domestic workers as compared to fruit and vegetable operations, which often utilize some portion of migrant workers (Table 2). However, both mean scores were less than 3, which indicates both groups had an overall decrease in access to labor, on average.

 

Table 2. Mean Responsez (and Standard Deviation) to COVID-19 impacts on the farm for agronomy operators, fruit and vegetable operators, and both groups combined.

Please share how COVID-19 has impacted you or your farm’s...

Agronomy (n=221)

Fruit & Vegetable (n=82) p

Combined(n=303)

Day to day activities 2.89 (0.89) 3.17 (1.12) 0.129 2.95 (0.95)
Supply chain slowdowns and shortages 3.05 (1.12) 3.26 (1.07) 0.258 3.09 (1.11)
Markets and farm prices 3.08 (1.12) 3.27 (0.91) 0.144 3.11 (1.07)
The farm workforce (access to labor) 2.77* (0.74) 2.70* (0.91) 0.024 2.73 (0.78)
Stress level and health 3.75 (0.83) 3.82 (0.94) 0.520 3.78 (0.87)
Worker/personal safety and Personal Protective Equipment 3.68* (0.88) 3.93* (0.97) 0.045 3.74 (0.92)

zEvaluation surveys asked participants to rank the COVID-19 impacts in their farm on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1= decreased a lot, 2= decreased a little, 3= no change, 4= increased a little, 5= increased a lot. Data presented are the mean rankings for the group.

yCombined dataset from agronomy and fruit and vegetable groups.

*Designates significant difference between groups (⍺=0.05).


The agronomy group reported an overall decrease in day-to-day activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while the fruit and vegetable group reported a slight increase; however, there was no statistically significant difference between the two groups. The increase in day-to-day activities for the fruit and vegetable group is likely explained by the increased demand for local farm products during the COVID-19 pandemic (Canales et al., 2020). Both groups reported an increase in supply chain showdowns and shortages. This is to be expected, as supply chains that affect farming inputs, such as seed, fertilizer, and crop protection products, would affect all types of farming operations.

COVID-19 affected fruit and vegetable operators worker/personal safety compared to the agronomy operators. Mean scores were 3.68 for the agronomy group and 3.93 for the fruit and vegetable group. This indicates that both groups experienced an increase in impacts on personal safety and PPE; however, the difference was significantly greater for the fruit and vegetable group (p=0.045). This could be attributed to the amount of hands-on labor associated with a fruit and vegetable farm, versus more mechanical and climate-controlled working conditions common on agronomic operations. Other factors affecting the fruit and vegetable group include more interaction with customers and the general public through retail and direct-market outlets.


Conclusions

The winter production meetings are traditional in-person events that were converted to online learning in 2020. The University of Maryland Extension (UME) team was quick to create the online series of meetings but unsure how attendees, especially farmers, would respond. The results of the survey show that as programs move back to in-person, some virtual opportunities should continue to be offered. Future UME winter crop meetings will likely include in-person and virtual options in order to reach as many clientele as possible. The impact of COVID-19 on food systems has been a popular topic by analysts and researchers; however, investigation into the impacts at the farm level are uncommon. These results were important for the UME team in order to support our farm audience moving forward in working directly with farms, planning events, and developing applied research.


Literature Cited

Canales, E., S. Low, and K. Boys. (2020). Local Food Supply Chain Dynamics and Resilience during COVID‐19. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, (43)1, 86-104. doi.org/10.1002/aepp.13121 

Coryn, CLS,  LW Becho, CD Westine, PF Mateu, RN Abu-Araid, KA Hobson, DC Schroter, EL Dodds, AT Vo, and M Ramlow. (2019). Material Incentives and Other Potential Factors Associated With Response Rates to Internet Surveys of American Evaluation Association Members: Findings From a Randomized Experiment. American Journal of Evaluation, 41(2), 277-296. doi.org/10.1177%2F1098214018818371 

Majumdar, A., A. Chambliss, H. Fadamire, and R.R Balusu. (2020). Practical Evaluation tool and Logic Model Framework for Extension Educators and Grant Writers. Journal of the NACAA, (13)1. https://www.nacaa.com/journal/index.php?jid=1096 

Torell, R., B. Bruce, and B. Kvasnicka. (1999). Promoting and organizing agricultural extension
meetings. Journal of Extension [Online], 37(1). http://www.joe.org/joe/1999february/tt1.php. Retrieved from: https://extension.tennessee.edu/eesd/Documents/PlanningEvaluation/HowFarmersLearnMeetings.pdf