The growing opportunities in virtual learning

Brothers Bob Hochmuth (left) and Dr. George Hochmuth (right), both with the University of Florida, host the filming of the hydroponics nutrient module on the virtual field day Web site.
Photos courtesy of Bob Hochmuth.

Workshops, short courses and field days are just a few of the resources available to southern growers. Regional universities, the Cooperative Extension Service and state agriculture departments frequently sponsor educational and networking opportunities.

The realities of farming, however, can make it difficult to participate. The financial and time investment to travel to distant venues is prohibitive for some, while others need to continue to carry out day-to-day farm operations. Often, the off-season is a convenient time for growers to gather, but research stations and model farms are also off-peak. Arrangements can be made, however, only to have Mother Nature spoil a long-anticipated field day.

Whether or not you have embraced high-tech tools such as the Internet, social media, MP3 players and smartphones, they make it easier than ever to increase your knowledge base and networking opportunities. Several entities throughout the South are maximizing their outreach efforts by tapping into 21st century tools.

Virtual field days available on your schedule

In the mid-2000s, those drawbacks associated with traditional field days were on the minds of University of Florida (UF; www.ufl.edu) Cooperative Extension personnel Bob Hochmuth and Dr. Joan Dusky. Hochmuth, a multicounty agent and hydroponics expert based at the North Florida Research and Education Center in Live Oak, was especially interested in a new information delivery method for greenhouse farmers.

“We have three demonstration greenhouses on site [that people can visit at anytime],” Hochmuth says. “[But] if someone wanted to visit us at a time when production is low, that’s a problem. I wanted to capture the peak time of year for educational purposes.”

So, the concept of filming a field day demonstration that could be viewed online at any time was born. Dusky, dean for extension, proposed a pilot project to test the concept, which UF agreed to sponsor. The logical place to begin was with hydroponics.

A special hydroponics greenhouse was set up for the filming of virtual field days at University of Florida’s North Florida Research and Education Center – Suwannee Valley in Live Oak, Fla.

“Florida is the only state east of the Mississippi that showed an increase in the number of farms in the 2000 census,” Hochmuth says, adding that the 8 percent climb came in the form of small farms. “There is a big need to educate new farmers and to provide existing growers with alternatives such as hydroponics and organics.”

The extension staff worked closely with the Center for Instructional Technology and Training at UF to make the new approach a reality. First on the agenda was the best way to structure the virtual field day. Hochmuth says the team considered the concept of an ongoing field day in which they would simply capture proceedings on audio and video. However, Hochmuth chose to work a little harder to create a more effective presentation.

“We decided to set up our greenhouse for a field day, but to film the module separately from an actual event,” he says.

For the test hydroponics project, he identified the 20 most important topics or frequently asked questions, then boiled the material down to the main points. The result is a focused five to seven-minute presentation that is Web and user-friendly rather than a typical half-hour talk common at traditional field day events. Potential hydroponics growers can watch and listen to presentations on every aspect of operations from setting up a greenhouse, including 360-degree views, to marketing products.

After developing that formula and devoting a year to perfecting the required software, the virtual field day Web site (www.vfd.ifas.ufl.edu) was launched in 2006.

Growing and improving virtual field days

The success and popularity of the hydroponics modules have led to the development of additional online field days. Currently, nine topics with multiple presentations within each category are available on subjects such as alternative enterprises, organic vegetable production and stone fruit.

Hochmuth says that hydroponics growers, whom he says tend to be especially computer savvy, particularly welcome the format. Regardless of technical skill level, the online presentations allow people to learn at their convenience and at their own pace.

“The concept is very efficient for cooperative extension staff because we can use our teaching time more effectively,” Hochmuth adds. “We used to spend a lot of time teaching individuals. Now we can refer them to the Web site for the basics and we can consult with them for more [advanced topics] if needed.”

Creating virtual field days is an intensive and time-consuming endeavor. The greenhouse or other staging area must be set up and skilled personnel are required for the filming and editing of the material. Although UF funded the pilot project, fees are charged to faculty who create additional modules. In many cases, however, cooperative extension enhancement grants can be tapped to cover the costs.

“Faculty members must be willing to be on camera, but the film crew makes it easy,” Hochmuth adds.

Reaction from growers has been positive. Hochmuth finds many people are unaware of the extension service, but more are learning about it through visiting the virtual field day site. County agents are enthusiastic about including the site in their training events. Best of all, virtual field days are available at no cost.

In fact, according to a UF news release, fans of the site can be found several growing zones away from the Sunshine State. Al Magrum of Lambertville, Mich., used virtual field days in 2008 to guide him as he started a hydroponics growing operation in his home. Using three 10-gallon aquariums, an aerator and lights, he now has basil, chives, oregano, thyme, rosemary, green onions and parsley growing.

He used the video as a guide and later e-mailed follow-up questions to Hochmuth.

“I will be using his setup [in the future]. It’s very easy and cheap to build and he explained how to do everything,” Magrum said, shortly after setting up his operation.

The site is simple to use, with no registration or login required. The technical requirements of Flash Player, Windows Media Player 9+, QuickTime Player and Acrobat Reader are clearly outlined on the home page, with a link to download software if needed (the functionality also is compatible with Macintosh computers). Extension contact and programming information and links to other online resources are included.

When it was first launched, the concept was new, so developers had a steep learning curve as to the optimal online presentation. Over time, they’ve learned that users value being able to access information quickly. Thus, the site was revamped last year to increase ease of navigation. That improvement was one factor leading to a dramatic increase in Web site traffic. The virtual field day site had a quarter of a million visitors in 2009, up from a mere 20,000 the previous year.

“I’m not super tech savvy, but I see its advantages in reaching people,” says Hochmuth, who recently dove into social media by creating a Facebook page (http://tinyurl.com/floridasmallfarmshydroponics) at the request of hydroponics growers.

University of Florida’s Dr. Dan Cantliffe (left) and Bob Hochmuth (right) film the hydroponic crops module for the virtual field day

Other high-tech educational offerings

UF isn’t alone in tapping the power of the Internet for educational outreach. Auburn University (www.auburn.edu) is spreading the word about integrated pest management through a Web site, www.sites.aces.edu/group/
commhort/vegetable/default.aspx
. Special features include a blog and pest alerts. YouTube (www.youtube.com) fans can receive Auburn alerts through that social media Web site by visiting the “IPM4Vegetables” channel. For organic updates, check out the eOrganic channel.

A number of organizations offer webinars, interactive seminars online. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture (www.wvagriculture.org) recently used the technology to present information for those seeking Specialty Crop Block Grants. To participate in a webinar, follow the sponsor’s instructions to log onto a dedicated meeting Web site, such as GoToMeeting (www.gotomeeting.com). Virtual attendees can see and hear presenters and view materials or displays. They may also ask questions in real time, as if they were in the same room as the presenters. There is no cost to participants.

With an iPod application available to turfgrass managers from the University of Georgia (www.uga.edu), can apps for commercial growers be far behind?

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.