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Networking in a new era

We thought the online age hit agriculture two decades ago. Then came the pandemic. Are you ready?

“We all appreciated being recognized as an essential service during the pandemic,” says one senior advisor with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. But it comes with a price.

Everyone knows that farmers spend a lot of time on the farm, but farmers know how vital it is that they maintain excellent off-farm contacts too, whether it’s for the health of their businesses, the health of their soils, or their own personal and social health.

In fact, farmers value networking as much or maybe even more than anybody else. Okay, so maybe “networking” isn’t always their favourite word, but you get the point. Farming is a people business.

It’s other things too, of course. You’ve got to produce. But how far can any farmer get without talking to input suppliers, neighbours, equipment dealers, bankers, crop buyers, and so many others.

So, it begs the question, is all that networking going to stay exclusively online after the pandemic?

And here’s another question. Would it be bad if it did?

The thing is, many farmers have found that going electronic with Zoom and all sorts of other digital systems is okay for keeping the farm going. But to really get into the details, or to really evaluate a new idea or a new partner, wouldn’t you rather be in person?

Jennifer Wright. photo: Supplied

You won’t always have a choice, though. E-tactics are here for good, so we all have to get better at them. “It’s even more important to make those efforts, to make those connections so that you are staying in touch with your colleagues, you’re still learning and you have that social connection as well,” says Jennifer Wright, senior HR advisor at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

And don’t forget the social health side. “In agriculture it can be isolating and lonely,” Wright says. “So, now, when you don’t have that extra outlet of going into town for a coffee in the morning, or running into your neighbours or friends at the farm equipment dealership, it’s more important to ensure that you’re reaching out, and to be intentional about maintaining the relationships you do have and continuing to build your networks.”

However you look at, your people contacts are vital.

Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel has been thinking about just how vital. She’s a busy farmer at Mossbank, Sask., and a sought-after speaker. “We’ve got our partners, landlords, bankers, accountants, buyers, suppliers, service providers, employees and family both on and off the farm,” she says. “The day-to-day operation is already a huge network to juggle, let alone moving outside of that and into your business network, then outside of that into an industry network and beyond into a global network.”

The good and bad of online networking

Agriculture has always been built on strong relationships, and the industry has put tons of effort during the pandemic into finding alternative ways to build and maintain them. There’s been huge growth in learning online, as well as digital events and networking opportunities.

Like other organizations, CAHRC has had to shift to offering online events and meetings. “We weren’t sure what we were going to see for participation and engagement, but it’s been great,” Wright says. “People are more engaged, and more likely to participate because they can just click a button. A lot of events that have gone virtual are making efforts to create some level of networking opportunity virtually within their events. I think it’s important to take those opportunities because you are going to meet a whole other group of new contacts.”

For its own part, CAHRC has found virtual focus groups enable it to connect with more people and get more perspectives and engagement because it’s convenient for people to participate without the expense and time commitment it would usually take to attend a group in person.

Jolly-Nagel is on the board of directors of the Western Canada Wheat Growers and an international director of the Global Farmers Network, and is used to speaking at major events all over the world, but she’s been challenged to rethink how to deliver her positive messages about agriculture in a new way. 

Just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic she had been making plans to take one foot out of the agriculture space and find ways to better infiltrate and be more available to the consumer sector. 

Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel. photo: Supplied

“There aren’t very many farmers, and most of us live in rural and remote areas, so we’re not so easy to find and reach,” she says. “I felt that putting myself out there as a speaker available to other industries to talk about food and farming would be beneficial to counter some of the fear and misinformation.”

So, Jolly-Nagel has developed a new website — cherilynjolly-nagel.com — to promote herself as a speaker and to agvocate to a wider audience, although she admits that online is not her preferred realm.

“I thrive off of meeting people. As a speaker there’s just nothing better than finding somebody in the audience who’s nodding or connecting with your message, or who looks confused, so you know you have to focus more on developing that point or sharing that message,” she says. “I miss having that audience.”

On the flip side, though, she is able to reach a much larger and more diverse audience. “There was a lot of travel for me, which I enjoy doing, but it has sometimes been a challenge,” she adds. “It’s more convenient to be able to do that out of the home office and still be here for my family.”

Seeking value

Knowing that there are pluses and negatives, Jolly-Nagel says how much value a farmer will get from networking and connecting in a virtual world will depend largely on each individual.

“If you were really coming out of your comfort zone in the first place to network (at conferences or meetings), maybe you’re relishing being able to isolate and still get some of the benefits of networking and learning,” she says. “Other people really generate and feel energy from live events and meeting new people, from the receptions and networking events.”

Some farmers joke about the annual round of annual meetings and conferences being their “holiday” away from the farm, and even for Jolly-Nagel as a farmer, these events were a time when she and her family could recharge their batteries.

“At the annual Wheat Growers Convention, we knew we were going to be around like-minded farmers, people that were innovative and fun, doing cool new things and we just couldn’t wait to get back and catch up, ask questions and share fun stories,” she says. “Without a doubt, I do truly miss a lot of that face-to-face connection.”

But it’s not gone forever, and although things will eventually return closer to the way that they were pre-pandemic, the infrastructure and expertise that has developed in the virtual space over the past year is likely going to mean future events and opportunities will be a blend of in-person and virtual, creating options that a lot of people now value more than ever.

“I do see a marriage between how we used to do things and how we can do things now, and more of an acceptance around that virtual piece,” Jolly-Nagel says, although more pressure needs to be put on governments for better rural bandwidth.

Avoid virtual fatigue

Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to internet fatigue. The way to compensate will strike many as ironic too. It’s to make your virtual connections more personal.

If you have a group of neighbours that you usually get together with, maybe it’s doing a Zoom coffee instead of being at the store. You have to adapt and look for those opportunities to make some of those connections more personal in smaller groups, in addition to when you’re going to an event. 

Also, don’t wait for the kinds of excuses you usually have for bumping into people.

“It’s possible to end up down the rabbit hole that is online learning,” says Jolly-Nagel. “It can truly be a full-time job.” photo: Getty Images

Says Wright: “I’ve had people reach out to me, for example, that would say, I normally see you at Ag Day in Canada, but we won’t, so let’s have a Zoom chat like we would if we were there.”

To counter virtual fatigue, also be sure to take breaks and mix things up, Wright adds.

Then, follow some common sense rules. “Make sure that you’re taking breaks away from the screen in-between meetings,” Wright says. “If you can, get outside. And you don’t always have to Zoom. If it’s one or two people just make a phone call. Although it’s still virtual, mix it up between those big events where you’re just a face on the screen being talked at, and try to incorporate more personal, one-on-one or small-group conversations.”

Sort through the online noise

“I was overzealous at first,” Jolly-Nagel says. “It is possible to end up down the rabbit hole that is online learning, or reaching out and following up on new connections, and things like that. It can truly be a full-time job for farmers. You have to determine whether or not something new will add value.”

It’s a lesson that requires continuous monitoring, she finds. “I think I could certainly do a better job at evaluating whether or not my time is of value in a lot of this online space.”

Wright advises farmers to begin with the type of events you’d typically attend in person. “You probably already have an idea of what the quality of those would be like,” she says. “Take a look at the seminars or sessions that are going to be most applicable to what you want to learn or what you want to get out of attending.”

Better yet, identify the gaps you’re trying to fill, she recommends. What products do you need to learn about? What practices do you want more insight into? “Or maybe there’s a speaker that you’ve been waiting to hear and you now have a chance to hear them virtually.”

Also listen to reviews. But, she cautions, social media isn’t always the best place to look for online learning and networking opportunities. “Social media is a great place to get out there and advertise your event, but if you’re looking to attend and understand the quality and value, it can be overwhelming,” she says. “Look through industry and association sites, look to colleagues, friends and neighbours that may have attended or registered or might have more knowledge about a particular event, workshop or conference.”

Most organisations have e-newsletters that farmers can subscribe to or they can follow their social media feeds to find out about events or other online options they recommend. “These are credible sources and the information is coming to you, so you’re not spending as much time trying to work your way through the weeds to find what you’re looking for,” Wright says.

Perhaps a big bonus from the pandemic has been that farmers feel, more than ever, that they are valued, although that recognition also comes with a price.

“I think we all appreciated being recognized as an essential service during a pandemic,” Wright says. “However, there’s more demand on our time and more questions being asked, a lot more people are interested in what we do, and the innovations that will come, and all of that requires an enormous amount of our time and attention, so we have to be very aware of how we manage our virtual time.”

Beyond agriculture

So far, the consensus has been that if agriculture goes virtual, it will make huge strides in reaching out to consumers. But will it?

For Saskatchewan farmer and agvocate Cherilyn Jolly-Nagel, there has been a steep learning curve.

“I have the website and social media platforms,” Jolly-Nagel says. “If you can communicate in that space, you should try to be there because that’s where our consuming public is. But I am not good at it, I don’t enjoy it.”

It’s a different environment, she has found in the past year. “I wanted to be on stage at a dental conference or go and meet some chiropractors that have questions about GMOs. I wanted to meet people, that was going to be my chosen piece of the communication space. So, it has most certainly been challenging to try to figure this virtual piece out.”

Just as the pandemic hit, she had three major speaking engagements lined up: the first in Brussels speaking about trade and use of crop protection products in Canada, the second in Toronto with Agriculture in the Classroom to have a conversation with 500 high school students about agricultural career opportunities, and the third in the U.S. to give a farmer’s perspective on global trade and exporting.

“These were three topics that are incredibly important to me and I was really looking forward to that, so after having my pity party, I had to figure out whether or not I was willing and able to go back to communicating in the agriculture space,” she says.

Which, of course, she did, in a big way, also getting involved in another project, just launched, with Ontario farmers and agricultural communicators Andrew Campbell and Crystal Mackay. Together they have developed utensil.ca, an online resource meant to help those coming into agriculture with no agricultural background. 

“There aren’t enough people with an agriculture background to fill all the positions in the industry, so we have to account for that,” Jolly-Nagel says. “These people are going to need some basic agriculture background before
they come in.”

The platform offers tools including quick, easy videos that cover basic topics like what’s the difference between hay and straw, three things to know about canola, chicken farming or grain bags. It also offers a 90-minute, online training program called “So… Your Client is a Farmer” that supports individuals and companies that want to do business with farmers.

“It’s great for onboarding new employees, and for insurance brokers, bankers, or anyone finding it a bit challenging to relate,” Jolly-Nagel says. “It’s for anybody who will be selling to farmers, or service providers that will be showing up on a farm some day and would like a bit of perspective about how they can improve their relationships with farmers. I am most proud of that project and the reach we will be able to have as opposed to trying to do one-on-one training sessions around the country. We can do this in a quick and easy online form.”

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