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“It has to be in person” is an excuse, even in agriculture

In the last year, we’ve run nearly 50 workshops with hundreds of participants. Many of these workshops have been with farmers, and we were just starting to feel confident that we’d nailed the basic tactics to maximize engagement, build community, tease out insights, and deliver value. The right balance of professional and fun.

But just as we were starting to feel confident, COVID19 hit and we had to overcome a new challenge. With less than a week to prepare, we had to move the two-day kickoff workshop of the Farmers2Founders Ideas Program, with 20 farmers we’d never met, to be completely online! We knew we couldn’t just keep the same agenda and move it to a video conference, but even with a new agenda, we had some big challenges. How would we build community? How would we keep people engaged? Would the farmers have enough bandwidth to get online and participate? We were nervous.

14 hours of video conference later, and we’ve learned some surprising lessons about what you can and can’t do online. More importantly, we have a few insights for other organizations- whether agtech startups, research organizations, or agribusinesses- trying to connect with farmers and bridge the rural-urban divide.

Create a strong value proposition (train the tech early)

Other than the two-day kickoff and one additional workshop 8 weeks in, the 12-week Ideas Program runs online to allow farmers to do what they do best: farm. To make this work, we use online tools such as Zoom (for video conferencing) and Slack (for sharing information and chatting).

Because these tools can be unfamiliar for some, we normally spend a whole session in our kickoff workshop marching through the tools. We see it as an opportunity for our farmer-entrepreneurs to learn a new skill that’s common in other contexts. But for the farmers, the training itself can be boring and feel pointless. Can’t we just text, jump on the phone, or use email?

To get everyone comfortable and prepared for two days of online participation, we held an optional tech training call the day before to go over the features and purpose of Zoom and Slack and the “rules” for online meetings (e.g., stay on mute, keep video on, remove background noise and distractions). We gave exercises to complete (e.g., paste your favorite emoji into the #general Slack channel) to see where people were up to. After we went through the main content, anyone who was feeling comfortable could leave, while for anyone having trouble, we had them share their screen and diagnosed individual issues. Facilitators could follow up to give individual support as needed, without making anyone feel like they were holding the whole group up.

Heading into the workshop, we were confident that everyone would be able to join the call, show their video, and send us a message if they were having any issues.

By moving the whole event online, we changed the value proposition of learning the new tools for the farmers. Instead of feeling like it was a frustrating and irrelevant skill being pushed onto them, they saw it as valuable and really leaned in.

Treat people as individuals (make time for intros and networking)

In almost all workshops, attendees sign up for the content but often leave feeling like the connections were the most valuable. Hearing about how other farmers are solving problems and networking at breaks and over beers are keys to the experience.

An online workshop runs the risk of treating all the attendees the same in the name of efficiency: speaking at them and keeping them on mute rather than talking with each other and creating connections.

To ensure we treated participants as individuals, we gave everyone homework to prepare a personal introduction. Everyone was asked share three photos:

  1. Your farm;

  2. Your family; and

  3. A random photo from the last 30 days, and the story behind it.

Getting through these intros took a while, but it was well worth it. By the end, everyone knew a bit about each other, saw some beautiful farms and funny pictures, and was comfortable using chat to share experiences, taking themselves off mute, and sharing their screen.

We also held multiple unstructured ‘social’ sessions to encourage people to connect. In small groups, armed with a tasty beverage, we talked about holidays, farms, and of course coronavirus and hoarding. A big key to success was having the coaches show up and engage, but as humans having a chat, not as facilitators driving the conversation. Even online we were able to connect as individuals and find common interests, bringing together different perspectives, skills, and knowledge.

There’s no excuse to make online content boring (keep things interactive)

Our in-person workshops are highly interactive and fast-paced. We turn off phones, constantly ask for responses from the room, and frequently break into smaller groups to work on exercises. Moving online, it can be tempting to just march through content, skipping exercises that seem too hard to execute while navigating mute buttons and a large group.

But delivering a workshop online is no excuse to make the content or experience boring. In fact, distractions are even more plentiful with everyone at home, so engaging content is even more critical.

We used chat to keep things interactive. Farmers gave responses on a 1–5 scale by typing a number into chat, answering questions like, “How comfortable are you with that concept?” and “How is your energy level?” Farmers also asked questions and shared helpful resources in chat. While one facilitator presented, others could answer questions and reach out directly to individuals who needed more help or time.

To give teams time to work through exercises and have discussions in small groups, we also used the breakout room feature in Zoom. This magical feat of technology works exactly like it should: with the click of a button, everyone is moved into a smaller video conference, and can go back to the main room at the end of the session. In these rooms, 3–4 farmers and a coach were able to work through exercises, give each other feedback, and discuss examples.

Moving online meant we had to change the agenda and content, but it was not an excuse to forget about the user experience. In fact, the challenge presented an opportunity to create what in some ways was an even better one.

A bit of hope in tough and disconnected times

Leaving these two days, I am just as confident as I am after an in-person workshop that we will not only help these 14 farmer-led startups to advance their ideas, but that we will form long-term friendships and business relationships. For others struggling to connect with farmers or cross the rural-urban divide, or even just run a workshop that today is at risk of being canceled, it turns out that “it has to be in person” might just be an excuse.

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