Virginia Cooperative Extension goes digital, explores new pathways for content delivery

By Max Esterhuizen

virginia cooperative extensionBull auctions have moved online and over the phone. Exercise courses are being offered virtually. Baby chicks are hatching on Facebook Live events during embryology classes.

Though COVID-19 has halted many of the in-person events that Virginia Cooperative Extension has historically held, it hasn’t slowed Extension agents, specialists, and administrators who have brought many of the in-person experiences online, which has resulted in some unique and impactful educational opportunities.

“Extension is here to serve the commonwealth at all times and we strive to address the new challenges in our communities by providing convenient and powerful resources for them, wherever they may be,” said Ed Jones, director of Virginia Cooperative Extension. “Our agents are incredible resources who continually work to be beacons of light for communities across the commonwealth.”

One example is the Southwest Virginia Bull Test Program, which required a new method of delivery for the annual sale to continue.

A collaborative effort between Extension and the Virginia Beef Cattle Improvement Association, the bull development program culminates with an annual sale held the fourth Saturday in March. The annual sale typically brings more than 350 beef cattle producers together each year.

Staying at the same date and time, a mechanism was established for producers to buy bulls without gathering for the traditional auction. The sale was moved to an internet auction format with CowBuyer.com, which allowed producers to bid online while the sale was broadcast using an auctioneer and recorded videos of the animals. A teleauction was utilized, which is an established system that enables buyers to listen to the sale and bid over the telephone.

Finally, knowing that many buyers had limited experience with internet sales and also given the fact that internet connectivity is not consistent across the region, Extension agents in 12 counties throughout Southwest Virginia established remote bidding sites. The agents hosted interested beef producers at local offices, where the sale was broadcast as it took place and served as a conduit for these producers to purchase bulls. Producers were able to view the bulls in person by stopping by the test station located outside Wytheville during the week leading up to the sale. Videos, sales catalog, and additional information on the bulls were available on the website before the sale.

The sale was a tremendous success, with 115 bulls and seven heifers sold for a total of $381,950 and an average of $3,520 per bull and $1,500 per heifer.

“Moving the entire sale took the dedicated efforts of many and the willingness to flexible and innovative by everyone involved,” said Scott Greiner, an Extension beef and sheep specialist. “The challenges of moving an inherently in-person show were great, but so was the reward of hosting a successful bull sale online. The success enjoyed would not have been possible without the buy-in of everyone involved with the annual event.”

E-commerce webinar

To keep revenue flowing, Madison County Farmer Market has adjusted the delivery method of their products. Madison County Farmer Market is one of the few multifarm vendor markets utilizing e-commerce to keep the market open. Customers can order online, make payments, and use Saturday curbside pick-up for online purchases. The first week of sales generated more than $1,600.

Extension is helping farmers markets across the commonwealth through the hosting of a Farm to eCommerce Webinar that covered the topics of pricing, managing risk, sales platforms, and best practices.

To help with physical and mental activity, the Physical Activity Research & Community Implementation Lab is offering weekly virtual workouts.

A brave new world: embryology during COVID-19

Frederick County Agent Dyllan Chapins is using online delivery methods to continue her work with embryology that was originally scheduled to be held in various elementary schools this year. With schools shifting to digital delivery, Chapins found homes for the incubators during the school closure.

Hatchings and other developmental milestones are being tracked on Facebook, but for students and teachers at Redbud Run Elementary, there is also a portal available that continues interactions in a digital environment.

Virtual Beef Challenge

On April 18, the Virtual Beef Challenge, a virtual cooking contest, was held for people with and without internet access across Virginia.

No actual cooking occurred, but youth were assigned a cut of beef, a list of available pantry items, and a list of available pieces of kitchen equipment. Everyone received mystery ingredients information at the same time.

Contestants had one hour to plan a five-minute presentation, including how they would prepare the beef, ingredients they would use, and more. At the end of the one-hour time limit, all contestants connected via the internet (or called in with telephone) to their unique Zoom meeting and gave their presentation, which was recorded.

Market Animal Show goes virtual

Originally scheduled to be held from April 30 to May 2, the Augusta County Market Animal Show is an opportunity for youth to showcase livestock they have raised. The event will still be held, albeit virtually, with judges still picking the winners.

The event, a collaboration of Augusta County 4-H and FFA, encourages youth development through livestock projects while assisting in the development of life skills. These goals are still occurring digitally through the submission of videos. Students in August County who are members of 4-H or their school’s FFA chapter can still take part by submitting a brief video covering various angles of their livestock. Animals will still be separated into classes, divisions, and grand and reserve champions.

Continuing to grow

Jeannie Layton-Dudding, the Giles County agriculture and natural resources agent, and Wendy Silverman, the New River Valley Extension Master Gardeners coordinator, are working with Christy Lawson, public service supervisor in the Giles County School System, to distribute packets of seeds with the food from the Giles County Public Schools meals program.

Silverman coordinates collecting and sorting thousands of vegetable and flower seeds that are donated each year to the New River Valley Extension Master Gardeners program for community projects. Silverman and Layton-Dudding bagged seeds to be distributed to children and families in Giles County.

Additional events

Extension is offering additional digital events to further help communities and families during this time:

  • Samantha Harden, through the Physical Activity Research & Community Implementation (PARCI) Lab, is offering weekly virtual physical activity meetups to help with physical and mental activity.
  • In partnership with the Family Nutrition Program, the Physical Activity Research & Community Implimentation Lab is offering recurring Mindful Meetups on Mondays at 9 a.m.
  • The Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation has been working at local, statewide, and national levels on providing food access and mutual aid information and support for organizations and groups. The center is also creating a fact sheet on community-based mutual aid approaches and strategies for groups to implement now and into the future to address food insecurity needs. Additionally, the center is hosting a virtual learning circle on themes of community connectivity and mutual aid strategies in the food system.
  • The Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition is sharing health and safety information to farmers and farmer educators pertaining to outbreak and stress.
         
 

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