Conference cancellations cause headaches

The cancellation of crop conferences in the three prairie provinces has created challenges for farm groups.

COVID-19 has caused the cancellation of FarmTech in Alberta, CropSphere in Saskatchewan and CropConnect in Manitoba.

That is forcing provincial commodity groups to find new ways to hold their annual general meetings and disseminate important agronomic research and markets information to their levy-paying members.

Tom Steve, general manager of the Alberta Wheat Commission and Alberta Barley, said farm groups have had to change from hosting live, in-person events to providing online information.

“We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” he said.

“I barely heard of Zoom or (Microsoft) Teams or Webex before the middle of March and almost overnight it became the primary way for us to communicate, even with our board of directors.”

Steve is going to miss the face-to-face contact with farmers and colleagues that occurs at crop shows and trade shows.

“There’s nothing like personal contact and we find that farmers thrive on that and have an appetite for that,” he said.

Alberta’s wheat and barley commissions will still be hosting some live events, such as the annual WheatStalk agronomy event that just took place in Fairview, Alta.

“We did pull that one off,” said Steve.

The commissions will also be hosting the Prairie Cereals Summit in Banff in December, although registration will be restricted to 150 people rather than the usual 250 participants.

Steve said the path forward is likely going to involve a combination of in-person and virtual events.

Ellen Grueter, grower relations manager with SaskCanola, said there is no real financial impact to the cancellation of CropSphere because it was run as a stand-alone, break-even event.

But what has been impacted is the ability to engage with farmers and share research and other extension material.

“People’s appetite for virtual content is different to that of in-person events where you can have good networking and one-on-one conversations and just hold someone’s attention span for longer,” she said.

SaskCanola has been providing daily agronomic content through its website and social media, and has been hosting webinars that have attracted between 40 and 100 participants.

But there is an “abundance” of virtual content vying for farmers’ attention in the new COVID reality.

“How do we share the most important or new information with them in a way that’s going to be palatable?” said Grueter.

“That’s the question mark for us this fall and winter.”

Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, said SPG’s plan is to share shorter chunks of information with growers through webinars rather than hosting multi-day conferences.

The benefit is that farmers can watch them at their convenience and don’t have to travel in what can be treacherous winter conditions.

The downside is there is no opportunity for face-to-face interaction with growers.

“That level of deeper engagement with people, that’s a little bit more difficult to do when you’re just doing an online webinar,” he said.

Morgan Cott, agronomy extension specialist for special crops with the Manitoba Crop Alliance, said the cancellation of CropConnect has been good for the budget but not for the sharing of information.

“It’s kind of a bummer because we don’t get to have that connection and we don’t get to be doing our part for the membership,” she said.

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