Grey Bruce Farmers’ Week a virtual success

·5 min read

GREY BRUCE – It was a unique challenge for Grey Bruce Farmers Week, Jan. 5-12 – two featured speakers in different time zones (one in the United Kingdom and the other in New Zealand) speaking simultaneously in a third time zone in Owen Sound, and being broadcast to four different time zones. Lorie Smith and the GBFW organizing team met the challenge, and more with this year’s virtual event.

Thanks to the expertise of CTRE Productions and a lot of advance planning, the presentation entitled Using Genomic Markers in an Ovine Breeding Strategy, by Robert Hodgkins, owner, Kaipoi, U.K., and Johanna Scott, owner, Targeted Breeding, New Zealand, on Sheep Day, Jan. 9, went off without a hitch.

The same was true of the other presentations and trade show at this year’s event.

Unlike past years, when the live conference and trade show has been held in Elmwood, this year’s event was virtual.

Said event organizer Smith, the decision made last summer to hold a fully virtual event was not an easy one. While GBFW has utilized livestreaming technology in recent years, doing the entire event including the trade show component was a tremendous leap of faith – not just by her and her team, but the producers and sponsors.

And it worked.

She said even people who were none too familiar with the technology were willing to give it a try.

“Zoom broke through that ceiling for us,” she said.

Before the pandemic, no one would have dreamed of having a virtual conference and trade show, but they’ve been talking to their grandchildren on Zoom.

And the organizing team did what they could to make sure the event would be a success.

New this year was the three-day pass. Smith said a lot of people took advantage of that.

And the content was excellent. The virtual format made it possible to bring speakers from quite a distance, with no need for expensive air travel.

“We delivered as much content or more,” she said.

That content was delivered to a much wider, and, by all indications, very appreciative audience. People participated from right across Canada and some from the United States.

“I told the CTRE Productions people to take the best parts of the in-person conference and include it,” Smith said.

There was an information desk with a real person on the screen to answer technical questions, for example. People weren’t able to enjoy the beef dinners and pies, but there were ample opportunities for networking and chatting, and for asking questions to speakers.

Smith said the local area has always known what an excellent conference and trade show GBFW is. It’s been described as a “hidden jewel” of an event. It’s no longer hidden. Going virtual meant more people learned about it and enjoyed it.

“I hope we increased our profile,” Smith said.

It wasn’t something that was left to chance. The organizing team went out of their way to get sponsors from outside the area, and they helped to promote the event right across Canada.

Smith noted a Twitter comment put GBFW right up there with some of the country’s top agricultural conferences and trade shows.

Although the final numbers aren’t in, Smith said indications are that some days there were a lot of people from outside Grey-Bruce attending – for example, on Sheep Day and Goat Day.

Preliminary numbers indicate about 620 households attended, and many of those households had more than one person. By comparison, attendance is usually around 700 people.

“Attendance was comparable or stronger,” Smith said.

Although the format was different, the 55th annual GBFW had the same winning combination of speakers that attendees want to listen to and chat with, other producers to network with, trade booths with plenty of information, and much more.

The reason, said Smith, is GBFW is, and always has been led and driven by farmers. In addition to herself, Nicole Heber and Patricia Ellingwood of Grey Ag Services, there’s a committee of people in the business of agriculture. Many of the presenters were suggested by farmers, for example, Crops Day presenter, Dr. Lee Briese, agronomist, from North Dakota, who spoke on Soil and Crop Management: The Details Matter (and yo-yos – those who attended will understand). It means the content is relevant and useful.

“We have a history of having an exceptionally well-organized conference,” said Smith. “The was no way we weren’t going to do that (with the virtual conference).”

It meant throwing everything she knew about organizing an in-person conference out the window and being ready to meet a lot of new challenges, but Smith said going virtual for 2021 was the right decision. She’s glad the decision was made early, leaving enough time to organize it properly.

The organizers are facing another difficult decision about what to do about 2022. In some ways, it will be more difficult, Smith said. No one knows what’s going to happen with the pandemic, if enough people will be vaccinated in time to make an in-person conference possible. And now that the benefits of a virtual conference have been seen, the decision might be made to stay with that format. Being able to access presenters who don’t have to travel to participate is only one advantage.

If organizers decide to go back to Elmwood, there will be changes, as GBFW metamorphosizes into something new.

One thing is certain – GBFW22 will be excellent as always, with great speakers, ample networking opportunities, and well-attended – the best agricultural conference and trade show around.

Pauline Kerr, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Walkerton Herald Times