Drive to digital keeps farm shows going

When COVID hit, organizers of Ag in Motion found themselves 
adapting to the new reality — and peering into the future

Any other July, the roads to Langham, Sask., would be full of ag company reps, farmers, livestock and equipment on the way to Ag in Motion, Western Canada’s largest farm show.

This year, the only crowds were on the computer screen.

Why it matters: The old adage says necessity is the mother of invention, and AIM’s sudden shift to online likely kick-started innovations that will likely follow in-person shows for years to come.

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Like the rest of the farm show circuit in North America, Ag in Motion has been forced to face the reality of an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

By April, organizers had already announced that the in-person show would not be going ahead. Instead, Glacier FarmMedia (the parent company of this publication) decided, it was time to flex some digital muscles and see if Western Canada’s largest outdoor farm show could successfully make the jump to a fully virtual.

Suddenly, organizers were left with only 14 weeks to not only arrange for content, but also to adapt the platform and connectivity features that would meet the unique needs of a live farm show.

“There’s been a lot of demonstrating and teaching to both companies in agriculture as well as the farmers, what this platform is and how it can be useful,” show director Robert O’Connor said. “You have to remember, 14 months ago we weren’t even thinking about something like this, and yet Glacier FarmMedia went out on a limb to create this product to kind of fill that gap left by the cancellation of all the ag shows in, basically, all of North America now.”

Organizers built room for a digital trade show, arguably one of the greatest draws of AIM’s in-person events, with about 170 exhibitors signing on. Connectivity would not quite be the same as the face-to-face interactions, Glacier FarmMedia’s vice-president of content, Laura Rance-Unger said, yet organizers tried to fill the gaps with chat features. Niches were dug into the platform for product launches and special offers, while videos took the place of in-person equipment demonstrations, usually another draw for AIM.

Hops were among the crops WADO discussed during its AIM virtual tour.
photo: WADO

In the meantime, staff got to work on the speaker lineups. Over the next 14 weeks, organizers sought out, gathered, edited and polished presentations and videos on everything from grain marketing to livestock feed management. Speakers touched on the impacts of the “new normal,” not only the aftermath of a global pandemic, but political and weather events that have likewise shaken up the agricultural status quo.

“In this kind of scenario, we do have the exhibitors and people can engage with them through the online platform, but the content stream has become a much more valuable component to the show,” Rance-Unger said. “So we focused on the kinds of things that we could do from a content perspective or from a knowledge centre perspective to enhance the benefits of a live show.”

The response has been roughly the same as the first Ag in Motion event in 2015, according to organizers.

About 3,900 participants pre-registered for the show, O’Connor said, while opening day yielded over 5,000 digital entries.

Silver linings

Now with the first virtual AIM behind them, organizers are starting to think about what the fruits of that 14-week scramble could mean for future shows.

There is no question of whether a digital event will ever replace a live show, both O’Connor and Rance-Unger said. At the same time, both noted, the drive for digital outlined a number of digital elements that could improve the event overall.

“When you think of a live sporting event, a professional sporting event, they have had the live event, which everybody loves to go to, because there’s this great atmosphere and you get to interact and you get all of that benefit,” O’Connor said. “But from the digital standpoint, it’s like watching your favourite team, but you’re at home.”

Digital options might expand the reach and content of in-person shows, he said. Speakers normally out of reach due to distance might suddenly be an option. Exhibitors like research farms, unable to simply uproot their plots and cart them to Langham, suddenly have the option of virtual tours. Farmers unable to get off the farm for the week can sign in from their own homes.

At the same time, he noted, the show might now have the opportunity to keep that content up and available.

“We can keep the Ag in Motion event going digitally so that farmers can revisit what they saw at the live show, or maybe they missed something because the show is so big and now they can go back and find it and learn more about after the fact,” he said. “And that might help them with some of their decisions, whether it’s a purchasing decision or maybe they’ve seen a new way of doing something, whether it’s with seeding, spraying or harvesting.”

The show reached out to applied research farms unable to host field days due to the pandemic this year, Rance-Unger said.

Southwestern Manitoba’s Western Agricultural Diversification Organization (WADO), was one such farm.

AIM had never been really on his radar before this year, WADO co-ordinator Scott Chalmers said, since simply travelling to AIM would be a five-hour trip.

Chalmers took a series of short videos highlighting the different trials underway at WADO, videos that he then sent in for AIM staff to edit and package into a single video to be streamed during the five days of AIM.

“I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into and the exposure, the potential that it had for exposure,” he said. “It was nice to do.”

The farm’s streamed virtual tour drew 46 live attendees, although Chalmers says he does not know who has accessed the video since. As a bonus, he noted, he now has a video link for the farm to use in its own promotion over social media.

“He really took us to the field and he talked about the different research that they’re doing there in a series of short videos and so we were able to present that and I think that there was a really good engagement with that kind of approach,” Rance-Unger said.

There was some technological learning curves, Chalmers noted — everything from using wireless mics to figuring out how to move video files around on GoogleDrive and using video editing software on his phone.

Like AIM organizers, however, Chalmers has noted the potential for such virtual tours to increase WADO’s reach. Extension is an ongoing effort for the farm, he noted, with every year creating a new campaign to draw attendees to field days, “but you can’t get them out, because they’re also in the field,” he said.

“Maybe this system will allow guys to be more flexible if they can return to the virtual tour on a link or just watch it in the cab or listen to it while they’re doing their spraying,” he added.

Rance-Unger says organizers will now review the virtual show, including which innovations might be integrated into future AIM events.

“We had to learn a lot and we had to learn a lot very quickly… but we’re realizing that there is an opportunity here to get this information out to farmers in ways that we’ve never done it before,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any illusion that we want to replace the live show. I think the live show is very significant in terms of that innovation transfer to the farm but this could be something that we could be using to complement that in the future.”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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