The heart and soul of the Iowa Learning Farms program has been our face-to-face outreach and education. Each year, we have traveled to every corner of Iowa and talked to as many farmers and local folks as we could. Whether it was a field day in Page County or a county fair in Floyd County, we show up to engage Iowans on the importance of conservation and water quality practices. In addition, the Water Rocks! program travels to at least 180 Iowa schools a year with a vibrant hands-on environmental youth education program.
In any given year, we make face-to-face contact with some 36,500 people across Iowa: 1,100 field day attendees, 5,500 visitors to the Conservation Stations and 30,000 young people! That is a lot of social contact.
Since March 17 when ISU sent us all home and took us off the road, we have been asking ourselves how we take outreach programs that rely on connection and in-person engagement and put them online? The first couple of weeks of working from home were disorienting—we were trying to find our rhythm and perhaps even our purpose.
We have a lot of online content and so there were a couple of things we scaled up immediately. We increased the frequency of our highly successful and interactive ILF webinar series from monthly to weekly. We have seen participation in the webinars increase every week. Thanks to everyone who has agreed to present on short notice!
For Water Rocks!, we already have a rich cache of online environmental educational materials, so we increased our monthly E-News to weekly so that teachers would know what is available to students and parents for home education. Again, we saw a significant increase in the number of subscribers and open rates the E-News received.
Both of those initiatives were good first steps, but we knew we would need to do more. We also knew if we didn’t come up with new activities, we would run out of things for team members to do and layoffs could be possible. It is difficult to be creative in the middle of a pandemic, but also extremely important to be creative.
With Water Rocks!, we are taking our award-winning school program and turning it into videos via Facebook and YouTube. New videos will be posted at 1 pm every Tuesday through Friday at least through May. Check out www.waterrocks.org for more details.
For Iowa Learning Farms, we are giving our hand to virtual field days. We worried about all the things that could go wrong trying to livestream a Zoom meeting from a farm field: internet connections and technological mishaps were very likely. We have opted for a hybrid—we are taping the field component at an earlier date and playing the video during the live virtual field day.
I am grateful that Mark Licht and Alison Robertson readily agreed to host our first ILF virtual field day, happening tomorrow, April 16. This was our opportunity to work out the mistakes before heading to our farmer partners’ fields. Taping went well and being out in the sun away from our desks felt terrific. When I got back to my computer to edit the material, I learned that we had some technical difficulties with the sound on Alison’s field portion, so I had to cut most of the sound and she will just explain what you are seeing live during the event on Thursday.
I have since gotten the connector cables I need to ensure higher quality sound while taping with my iPhone for future events. ILF farmer partner Wade Dooley has volunteered to host our next field day on April 24 and I look forward to being on his farm next week to tape. During taping, we are using every social distancing precaution, including driving to field sites in separate vehicles. We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the willingness of our partners and team members to try something different.
During the live event, we will encourage folks to use their audio to ask questions and participate in discussions with the field day presenters. The Zoom system is designed so that only one speaker can be speaking at a time, so we will see how that goes. These virtual field days will be works in progress. They won’t be perfect, but we can’t let the perfect get in the way of connecting with each other. We will learn as we go. In this way, it won’t be so different from what it has always been with the Iowa Learning Farms program. Like any other field day, we will conduct evaluation. Over time, we will have lots of opportunities for improvement. Improve we must, because for now, virtual field days are all that we have.
No one knows when it will be safe to gather in larger groups again. I know I speak for my whole team when I say that we miss encountering all of you on your farms, in your schools and at your community events. We look forward to the day when we can be with you in person and back on the road again. Until that time, join us online and we will do our best to deliver the quality outreach and education you have grown to expect from us!