Extension is still open for business

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Sam Custer explains equipment
Sam Custer, an OSU Extension educator from Darke County, explains nutrient application equipment at the 4R field day in 2018. Extension services have had to move everything online due to COVID-19. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

Penn State Extension opened up its library of about 55 online courses for free through April. The thought was that with people stuck at home, and with extension being unable to hold in-person events and meetings, this would be a way to continue reaching people.

“We’ve seen a huge response,” said Brent Hales, director of Penn State Extension. “When I say huge, I truly mean that.”

The first two weeks registration was open, from April 1-14, more than 25,000 people signed up for courses from six continents. Pages views on the website were at nearly 2 million.

While they thought people would be interested, they didn’t anticipate quite that much interest. If you’re interested, you can find the courses at: extension.psu.edu/freecourses.

“It crashed our systems,” Hales said. “We had to quickly add memory and increase our bandwidth to be able to handle this.”

It’s just one of the ways extension services have adjusted to a world where personal contact is forbidden, but the need for knowledge is still there.

“We really feel like this is a way forward for us,” Hales said. “Extension is open for business … We will continue to be here.”

Reaching out

Extension offices in Pennsylvania and Ohio have been closed to the public for more than a month. Staff members are working remotely. Workshops, conferences and meetings are canceled, postponed or have moved online.

It was a big switch, but one that extension was prepared for. Hales said they’ve been working over the past couple years to upgrade their online platform for non-credit education.

Ohio State University Extension also recently underwent an IT upgrade, increasing fiber and bandwidth for speed and connectivity across the state, said Jackie Wilkins, interim director of Ohio State Extension. Some offices still had dial-up modems, she said.

“We have had to embrace and expand our technology approaches,” Wilkins said. “I think we’ve done a phenomenal job in being agile and pivoting toward that. It wasn’t something we could’ve predicted would be necessary.”

One of the ways OSU Extension demonstrated this agility was through the Ag Madness tournament that opened March 25. It’s a play on the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.

With no college basketball filling up the day through March and April, the Agriculture and Natural Resources program sought to fill that gap with ag education. While there’s no actual competition going on, each weekday contains three virtual education sessions, at 9 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.

Each day has a theme. The tournament has covered things like farm taxes, vegetable production, sheep production, hemp, cover crops, forestry, horticulture, forages and safety, said Sam Custer, interim assistant director for the Agriculture and Natural Resources program.

“We’ve had over 2,500 people attend our webinars, and almost 2,000 replays on those,” Custer said.

The tournament is slated to end April 30, but they may rerun some of the sessions as planting season continues on, Custer said. All the sessions are available for replay online at go.osu.edu/agmadness.

Touching lives

They’re continuing to help people in a variety of ways.

Pat Bebo, assistant director for the family and consumer sciences program at OSU Extension, said a program called Successful Co-Parenting was typically offered as a face-to-face class in various counties. Some judges require it of parents who are going through divorce proceedings. The online platform was already set up so those counties could continue providing that service.

A home-buying counseling program has continued by phone. Bebo said they launched a financial assistance survey program — go.osu.edu/financialassistance — where people can ask questions and extension staff will help them find answers. Many people have found themselves suddenly struggling with money due to COVID-19 measures.

“One example, a man was very concerned about his mortgage. He just didn’t know where to turn,” Bebo said. “The extension educator did the resource mining. Found out how he could contact his bank, how he could access unemployment resources.”

The man later reached back out to say he’d gotten the help he needed, thanks to the guidance from OSU Extension.

“The whole weight of the world was lifted off his shoulders because these simple questions could be answered,” Bebo said.

For occasions when an Penn State extension agent might need to work one-on-one, they’re doing it virtually or over the phone when possible. If that’s not possible, they’re trying to set up times to do farm visits without much personal contact.

“It means doing things a little bit differently, but our folks are rising to the challenge,” Hales said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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