[inlinetweet prefix=”” tweeter=”” suffix=””]In all 67 Florida counties, UF/IFAS Extension agents live in the communities they serve and are accustomed to adapting to the needs of the moment – through hurricanes and droughts, heat waves and cold snaps, and, as proven over the past year, pandemics.[/inlinetweet]
UF/IFAS Extension reports annually on how agents reach their clients and new audiences. This includes educational materials like videos, webinars, blogs and presentations, field consultations and more.
The 2020 data tell the story of the adaptations implemented to enable continuous service. For example, a 61% decrease in field consultations was balanced by a 60% increase in email/text consultations. Among the most notable shifts were toward more virtual presentation methods and ways to otherwise engage with audiences through electronic means, including social media, which saw a 128% increase in traffic and contacts.
“The pivot we saw last year, especially in virtual opportunities, should open up more of a variety of teaching methods going forward,” said Tom Obreza, interim dean and director for UF/IFAS Extension. “I think we’ll continue to reach our audiences where they are, but if hybrid or all-virtual opportunities exist, the agents are now more empowered and equipped than they were pre-pandemic to make that happen.”
Virtual offerings also gave rise to new thinking on future hiring opportunities, Obreza added, with all-virtual positions now being explored. While the county-based model is essential in Florida, borders are erased online and whole new opportunities have arisen for Extension to support Floridians.
UF/IFAS Extension agents were able to conduct some field consultations in 2020. The agriculture sector, in particular, looks to local agents to share knowledge and promote a successful harvest. With crops in the ground and livestock to feed, Florida’s second-largest economic sector often cannot wait for its problem-solving partners from UF/IFAS to provide consultation and solutions.
Obreza said a travel approval process created early into the pandemic enabled agents to continue serving this population, providing boots-on-the-ground service in a COVID-safe manner. These visits, in addition to agent availability through phone calls, texts or emails, helped UF/IFAS maintain its service to Florida growers.
Early travel restrictions and the shift for many to working from a remote location also likely gave rise to the 20% increase in production of educational materials, not unlike UF/IFAS Research’s recent report of a record publication year.
Obreza reflected on his own Extension past when considering this increase in written materials: “When I was a specialist, there was always something I wanted to write but didn’t have the time,” he said. “I think a lot of people took the opportunity to write what they had in their minds for a while, and they were encouraged to do that.”
Scott Angle, the UF vice president for agriculture and natural resources and the leader of UF/IFAS, highlighted the role of Extension in dispersing information, which is vital to the land-grant mission.
“Even during COVID and other times where our cadence of work became very different, UF/IFAS faculty always find ways to press forward and keep up our excellence,” Angle said.
Obreza likewise credits the UF/IFAS Extension faculty for meeting the challenges of the past year.
“I have all the praise in the world for our faculty. The situation pushed us into new ways of teaching in a very short period of time, but with that came a lot of discovery of talents,” he said. “These are people who want to serve their communities, and they figure out how to do it, one way or another.”
University of Florida policies regarding capacity limits, masking and social distancing remain in place, which means many of these virtual offerings have continued into 2021. As safety permits, the university anticipates relaxing these regulations in the coming months and opening opportunities for more in-person events.
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS brings science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents.
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