A Silver Lining of the COVID-19 Pandemic is New Opportunities for Professional Growth, Virtually of Course

During a typical spring, Kansas State University Research and Extension agents would be spending their days assisting producers with a myriad of water quality-related issues, from livestock feeding site selection to questions about harmful algae in a farm pond. This spring, however, was anything but typical. The COVID-19 pandemic generated unwelcome obstacles for extension’s traditional face-to-face framework, leaving many extension agents to wonder: how can I continue to support the producers and landowners in my county?

Extension agents across Kansas are often landowners’ first contact for questions about water quality issues. Agents also offer local programming to address area water quality needs, and they disseminate information through newsletters and articles in local media. With agents serving all 105 Kansas counties, it’s essential that they remain up to date with research and best management practices.

With field visits canceled, producer meetings limited, and state-wide projects effectively on hold, the negatives of the spring offered an unexpected positive for professional growth. In a virtual meeting space, any extension agent, from any county, could assemble to expand their collective knowledge about state water quality issues.

In the past, professional development trainings were limited to workshops in specific watersheds or conversations with water quality specialists. Virtual trainings, on the other hand, can provide depth to an agent’s knowledge toolbox, whether that’s answering questions about alternatives for livestock watering systems or writing newsletter articles teaching local landowners to identify invasive plant species in ponds. Another asset to working online? All agents can participate simultaneously; no driving time required.

Capitalizing on the idea of “training the trainers,” a planning group from K-State’s focus team on Natural Resources and specialists from the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE) designed a series of virtual training events about water quality, targeted specifically at extension agents. Each one-hour session featured live presentations and a panelist discussion. By taking advantage of the virtual arena, agents who might normally meet together only once or twice a year were able to participate in eight different training sessions under two different themes.

The first Natural Resources/KCARE training series featured five sessions on water quality impacts of livestock operations and grazing management. Experts presented on topics such as confined and non-confined feeding sites, extended grazing seasons, livestock watering systems, and electric fencing systems. The second series gave overviews on aquatic plant management in ponds, water contaminants affecting cattle health, and blue-green algae.

Without having to leave their home counties, more than 50 participants from every corner of Kansas logged on during May and June to hear live presentations and to question knowledgeable panelists. Speakers for these trainings included KCARE watershed specialists, extension specialists, county agents, K-State faculty from various departments, and a representative from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Another benefit of the virtual framework is the distribution of supporting resources. A central page on KCARE’s website makes available digital resources including full presentations, extension publications, links, videos of the full training sessions, and other materials relevant to each topic. Although these resources and trainings are geared toward water quality issues in Kansas, they are available to extension professionals anywhere.

With summer heating up, the K-State extension community is ready to reconnect and strengthen the partnerships that make this type of work so powerful. However, many will continue taking advantage of the virtual training environment, allowing agents to interact with each other more often and to learn from colleagues’ experiences in different counties. The costs are minimal as well: no travel expenses, no registration fees, and all the resources are digital.

Surveyed participants have been overwhelmingly positive, with the vast majority indicating that they would use the knowledge as a basis for their extension work. The Natural Resources/KCARE virtual training events will return later in the fall, with planned professional development opportunities about irrigation technology and digital resources/GIS

 

 

Kansas State University established the Kansas Center for Agricultural Resources and the Environment (KCARE) to coordinate and enhance research, extension, and teaching activities pertaining to environmental issues related to agriculture. KCARE forges partnerships between K-State scientists and other research institutions to create quality solutions for the environmental issues Kansas faces now and into the future.

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