Posted: October 19, 2020

Penn State Extension goes virtual to assist businesses, citizens, and communities in wake of COVID-19.

As the novel coronavirus pandemic stretched toward the summer of 2020, Mike Ohler had grave concerns about how COVID-19 might affect his farm, his finances, and his family. Ohler, who with his wife, Sandy, grows corn and soybeans on 1,100 acres at Sandy Valley Farms, a cash grain operation in western Venango County, had managed to navigate any coronavirus-related disruptions to his operations up to that point. But the virus and its health and economic impacts continued to threaten his business going forward.

"We have had to be more deliberate in dealing with our suppliers and the necessary COVID procedures," he said. "My retired parents live nearby, and the virus also has caused us some adjustments to keep them safe. My 17-year-old daughter has had to learn from home on our slow internet connection. My adult son was put on leave from his job during the lockdown and has been an extreme blessing to us in helping with the farm work."

Ohler said he has been comforted that almost all people with whom he has interacted have shown real concern for everyone's welfare while trying to safely maintain service. Among those who have helped give him peace of mind during these uncertain times are Penn State Extension educators, who have offered information and assistance aimed at keeping businesses solvent in the midst of markets that are reeling from pandemic-related troubles.

"I am encouraged by the proactive outreach by Penn State Extension to inform and educate the agriculture community on government programs enacted to respond to the crisis," he said. "Our ag community was already economically challenged before the disruption. To have access to program information even as the regulations were being developed helped us respond in an informed and timely fashion."

Ohler participated in an online seminar co-presented by Dan Brockett and Carla Snyder, extension educators with the Energy, Business, and Community Vitality Team, outlining how to access the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which was created by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities Act.

"I completed a PPP application but did not qualify," he said. "However, Dan Brockett called to let me and others know about an immediate opening for Economic Injury Disaster Loans [EIDL] for agriculture businesses that were previously ineligible. I applied for EIDL and was approved and funded. I was very impressed with Dan's ability to keep up with such a fluid situation."

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first issue for which Brockett and Penn State Extension were valuable resources for Ohler. "Whether working with an individual or relating to large groups, Dan's ability to communicate current issues, such as oil and gas development, pipeline rights-of-way, solar leases, and, of course, the COVID crisis and government programs, always leaves me well informed with up-to-date information," he said.

Virtually Prepared

Long before "coronavirus" and "COVID-19" became part of the popular lexicon, "Atlas" was a buzzword that circulated widely throughout Penn State Extension.

The internal moniker for an ambitious project to remake and modernize the organization, Atlas was aimed at combining extension's century-old strength--translating science-based knowledge to provide practical solutions that meet local client and community needs--with the latest instructional technologies and distance education practices.

To supplement traditional in-person seminars, field days, and growers meetings, the project integrated online courses and workshops, web-based event registration, a customer relationship management platform, an e-commerce application, and delivery of digital educational and marketing information. As Atlas reached implementation, it had become a model for the transformation of extension education at land-grant universities nationwide.

As a result of this initiative, begun more than seven years ago, Penn State Extension was well positioned to adapt to the educational environment and social distancing practices brought on by the COVID-19 global health crisis, according to Brent Hales, the organization's statewide director, who also is an associate dean in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Having the technologies and delivery methods in place gave us a leg up in providing critical educational programming at a time when we had to close extension offices across the state and avoid face-to-face interaction," Hales said. "As a result, we quickly have been able to expand our existing portfolio of digital and virtual products and programs to address the needs of the audiences and communities we serve."

A Focus on Digital

Early in the pandemic, Hales noted, a collection of coronavirus-related resources in a variety of formats was developed and posted online. The workhorse of this digital portfolio is web-based seminars, commonly called webinars. This format enables anyone with an internet connection to log in to an event, see and hear speakers, view presentations, and interact with experts from Penn State Extension and other collaborating organizations.

Extension leaders anticipate that in-person workshops and other events will return when health authorities believe it is safe to resume face-to-face interaction. But enhancements to Penn State Extension's digital education offerings will only grow in the future.

"Upon the implementation of COVID-19 regulations and directives, our faculty extension specialists and county-based educators rapidly began converting materials that originally might have been intended for in-person workshops to the webinar format," Hales said. "Plus, we were able to develop many new webinars addressing critical issues related to the pandemic to help farms, businesses, and families cope with various disruptions to 'business as usual.'"

Many webinars are free to register for and view, and most are recorded for future viewing. Topics are as diverse as Penn State Extension's program units, which include Animal Systems, such as dairy, livestock, and poultry; Agronomy and Natural Resources, including field crops, water quality, and forests and wildlife; Horticulture, which encompasses fruits, vegetables, ornamentals, and home gardening; 4-H Youth Development; Food, Families, and Health; Food Quality and Safety; and Energy, Business, and Community Vitality.

The analytics suggest that these webinars and other virtual offerings have been a hit with farm and food businesses and citizens in Pennsylvania and beyond. In April 2020, the first full month after stay-at-home orders were issued, traffic on the extension website totaled nearly 1.2 million users and more than 4.6 million page views, up over April 2019 by 70 percent and 205 percent, respectively. In addition, registrations in April reached almost 79,000 for extension online courses and more than 12,000 for webinars.

Supporting Essential Businesses

Under state regulations governing what activities could take place during the pandemic, agriculture, food, and related businesses were allowed to continue operating after being deemed "essential" and "life supporting." As organizations dedicated to supporting these functions, the College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension were also designated as essential.

Although county extension offices across the state closed to the public in March, educators working remotely from their homes quickly sprang into action. Using internet videoconferencing software, such as Zoom, to connect with colleagues on their statewide program teams, they developed webinars, online courses, videos, articles, and other educational materials to help clientele navigate COVID-19 issues.

"We heard from food, farm, agriculture, and natural-resource-based businesses, community organizations, and local governments struggling to stay afloat, remain viable, and adapt to the new pandemic normal," said James Ladlee, who oversees Energy, Business, and Community Vitality programs.

"Educators in the field were hearing from stakeholders about the challenges ag businesses were facing. Am I eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program? Is it worth it? Are the loans forgivable? How do we organize our business so our customers and employees remain safe? What are best practices for farm markets under COVID-19? What about curbside pickup or delivery? How does pandemic unemployment assistance work?"

Ladlee noted that, in addition to providing personal assistance through email and phone calls, educators in his unit offered nearly 40 new webinars and more than 100 new publications, articles, and news items in a roughly six-week window, starting in mid-March.

"Educational efforts were focused on federal stimulus opportunities for farm, food, and natural-resource-based businesses; ecommerce, delivery, and curbside pickup; farm market operations and local foods; and community crisis engagement and local government leadership," he said. "By mid-May, our online courses had reached more than 10,000 signups and webinar registrations had topped 5,000."

Strengthening the Food Supply Chain

Like all extension program teams at the onset of the pandemic, the Food Safety and Quality Team also mobilized to interpret COVID- related government guidelines and programs and to relay advice to clientele. This effort emphasized best practices and recommendations on food manufacturing and handling for food processors, retailers, and consumers.

"Our group is one of the leaders among providers of training and support to the food processing industry," said Catherine Cutter, a professor of food science who directs extension's Food Safety and Quality programs. "We conduct dozens of trainings each year for hundreds of food professionals, and we also are recognized for providing ongoing technical support to companies throughout the region. This positions us well to respond to the needs of the food industry when a crisis such as this erupts."

Among the Food Safety and Quality Team's contributions, according to Sharon McDonald, team leader for Retail/Consumer Food Safety programs, were articles and fact sheets for the retail food industry covering safe food handling, employee health and safety, cleaning and disinfecting, and reopening guidelines. The team also provided posters and tip sheets for farmers market vendors and customers, as well as consumer pieces addressing grocery shopping and home cleaning, sanitizing, and chemical safety.

"Another outcome of the pandemic is that we're seeing increased interest among consumers in growing and preserving their own food," McDonald said. "In response, we have developed a series of webinars on all aspects of home food preservation, as we feel this will be of great interest--and needed, especially in light of uncertainty around holding face-to-face programs in the near future."

A related webinar series, titled "Living on a Few Acres," has provided thousands of participants with information about how to grow and harvest their own food. With contributions from several extension program teams, the series features advice on producing vegetables, fruits, and meat to ensure a healthy food supply for families both during and after the current crisis.

Perhaps one of the most valuable resources that extension has offered is the opportunity for industry representatives to gather, virtually, to discuss issues related to the pandemic, said Martin Bucknavage, senior extension associate in food safety.

"Through online forums, we have enabled numerous attendees to discuss food processing during the COVID-19 outbreak," Bucknavage said. "Through these forums, companies have been able to share information about the issues facing the industry and ways they were working to fix them.

"These events also are an opportunity to address questions on non-pandemic-related topics," he added. "Just because we have COVID- 19 issues to solve does not mean other issues go away. We are always here to consult and provide technical assistance and scientific documentation to help companies with ongoing concerns related to food safety and quality--items such as microbial standards and shelf-life."

Farmers Market Forums

Extension webinars and online forums have been especially helpful to farmers market managers, many of whom were struggling to implement procedures and practices that would keep vendors and customers safe, while continuing to support local food systems roiled by supply chain disruptions.

"We run a winter market, and we had to cancel our last one on March 21 because we felt we couldn't run the market safely in light of COVID-19," said Abi Gildea, manager of the Bloomfield Saturday Market run by the Bloomfield Development Corporation in Pittsburgh. "After that, I hit the ground running trying to learn as much as possible about how we were going to be able to open for the summer."

Extension webinars and online forums have been especially helpful to farmers market managers.

Initially, Gildea said, her group implemented steps suggested by the national Farmers Market Coalition. "From there, Penn State Extension started its weekly online Farmers Market Manager Forums. Those were so helpful to me just to hear how other markets were operating, questions I never thought to ask, and so on. It provided a general outlet for market managers to see how we could make this happen.

"I quickly realized we were going to need detailed guidelines for our market," she said. "I created specific rules for our vendors, staff, and volunteers. I researched other markets across the country and what their guidelines were, and those helped shape ours. We eventually ended up sharing those on the Penn State Extension webinars."

Carol Zellers, board member and self-proclaimed "chief cook and bottle washer" for the Lansdale Farmers Market in Montgomery County, said the market manager forums--organized by Brian Moyer, extension education program associate in business and community vitality--were also key to her market's spring 2020 opening, which was delayed three weeks while new protocols were established.

"The forums have been invaluable for us," she said. "We absolutely have reaped the benefit of opening later and being able to incorporate the best ideas from other markets into our own process. The meetings have also fostered relationships with other managers. Because of that, when the forums end, I know that I can consult with these managers on a much more personal level because we have shared this remarkable transition during these challenging times. I can't imagine what our market would look like without having had the benefit of the forums."

"Meating" the Challenge

The meat industry has been among the food and agricultural sectors most affected by COVID-19. But when Monica Hepler and her husband decided to take the "Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point for Meat and Poultry Processors" course offered by Penn State Extension in 2019, they had no idea, of course, that a global pandemic was coming.

The training allowed Hepler's Meat Processing in Emlenton to satisfy U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements and ramp up their operation. With the pandemic leading to poorly stocked supermarket meat cases and worried consumers looking to buy food locally, their business has grown so much that they can barely keep up with demand. Many other small-scale meat processors in the state have seen similar explosive growth in business.

Hepler's has been in the beef business for more than 25 years and in the butchering business for 20 years, but having the shop under inspection by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service prepared them to deal with a 75 to 80 percent increase in meat sales in recent months. Taking the HACCP training at Penn State's University Park campus set them up for success, according to Hepler.

"With the shortages, people have learned that meat doesn't just come from the grocery store shelves, and they tell us how much they appreciate what we offer," she said. "Getting trained by Penn State Extension and becoming USDA certified was a great move for us. We are fortunate."

Hepler credits extension meat specialist Jonathan Campbell, one of the instructors of the class, for helping them take their shop to the next level. "His help was extremely valuable," she said. "When we had a few questions and issues while trying to get under inspection, I was able to reach out to him. Jonathan was just a wealth of knowledge for us. He had a lot of suggestions."

But it's not only small Pennsylvania meat processors who value Penn State Extension's help. In recent months--as the COVID-19 outbreak hit their plants, sickening workers and forcing closures--several large companies turned to extension for guidance about how to reopen and handle animals that could not be processed in the interim.

One of the most notable was the JBS plant in Souderton. It's the biggest beef processor in the east, typically handling as many as 2,300 head of cattle per day. That plant had to shut down for about two weeks, and Campbell consulted with plant managers about how to handle and resolve the situation.

Campbell, who is also an associate professor of animal science in the college, was in weekly contact with officials at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to keep them informed about closures, reopenings, and reductions in capacity and outputs at meat operations around the state. He said he believes that meat processors big and small trust him and other extension experts to advise them during a crisis because extension provides regular guidance on product development, food safety, and technical issues.

Smaller-scale meat processors no doubt benefit most from Penn State Extension's expertise, Campbell noted, and the importance of the smaller operations has been highlighted by supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Larger corporations have a team of food safety experts that help create a plan for how to deal with many types of hazards, and small- and medium-sized plants do not. Maybe the smaller establishments can't afford someone on their payroll with my expertise," he said. "So, to have someone like me or Penn State Extension poultry educator Gregory Martin, with so much experience available to help them, is a huge benefit."

Not Playing Chicken

Martin was one of the first people called when Empire Kosher Poultry decided it had to close its plant in Mifflintown because workers were infected by COVID-19. The largest producer of kosher poultry in the United States, the plant had thousands of birds in the queue to be processed when it shut down.

Empire wanted to minimize the impact of the closure on its business and determine what steps it could take to get back up and running again quickly, Martin said. "We discussed operational bio-security and occupational safety, but the biggest reason they touched base with me was to see what options were available to minimize the number of birds that were going to be lost in the transaction."

Martin, who provides emergency preparedness training for the poultry industry, including meat-processing operations, suggests that a plant closing because of COVID-19 is similar to a plant closing for a natural disaster such as a tornado. A big operation typically has thousands of animals awaiting slaughter, and decisions have to made about their fate, he explained.

The Penn State Extension Animal Systems Team has been "running in overdrive" during the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin pointed out, because no part of animal agriculture has been immune to the effects of the pandemic on the food chain. For the most part, he added, educators have been acting as farm advisers and resources for the agriculture industry and government.

"And I don't expect the demand for our services to subside anytime soon," he said.

Expertise Across the Spectrum

Similar scenarios have played out across a spectrum of industry and consumer sectors, with extension teams providing expertise and recommendations for dealing with various facets of the coronavirus crisis--from providing guidance to dairy producers on how to dispose of excess milk after the loss of markets, to offering webinars for homebound gardeners on establishing virus "Victory Gardens" to grow their own food and relieve stress. These efforts have covered a wide range of critical topics, including short-term supply chain issues and long-term disruptions due to plant closures; how retail businesses can reopen and operate in the "new normal"; euthanizing and disposing of animals; business diversification; implementing e-commerce solutions and expanding access to broadband internet service; and personal wellness.

These accomplishments are in addition to developing online resources for ongoing programs that address non-pandemic-related issues, such as spotted lanternfly management, water quality, and animal health.

Extension leaders anticipate that in-person workshops, growers meetings, field days, and other such events will return when health authorities believe it is safe to resume face-to-face interaction. But enhancements to Penn State Extension's digital education offerings will only grow in the future.

"To stay current as an educational organization, we need to continue to evolve to reach new generations of learners, while recognizing that some of the audiences we serve may have limited access to technology, such as broadband internet service," Hales, the extension director, said. "Our number-one goal is to provide people with the science-based information they want--how and when they want it--so they can use that knowledge to improve their lives, their businesses, and their communities."

By Chuck Gill
Jeff Mulhollem contributed to this article.

Photo Source: Bigstock
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Ziegler