I thought everyone would appreciate an article that provides an update on how the world of maple education is adapting to the pandemic. First, I suppose everyone realizes that normal is still a way off in the future, but that has not stopped us from delivering maple education. All the normal events, the Lake Erie Maple Expo, the Southern Syrup Research Symposium and the New York Mid-Winter Conference among others, have been cancelled. But in their place, a series of virtual maple programs have been delivered by specialists from across the maple producing regions. Let us step back to April and see where we have been and where we are going
In April 2020, everything came to a standstill as COVID-19 numbers increased in the United States. The pandemic had major impacts on the food production chain and food processing/distribution system. It was also a difficult time for Extension educators. Most of April and May were spent adjusting our work schedules to abide by rapidly changing health regulations. We were and are still working mostly from home. In-person meetings were all but cancelled, and teams of educators started brainstorming new ways to communicate with producers. It is very fortunate that we have access to virtual technologies in 2020 that were not available as little as just 5 years ago.
By June, plans were being formulated to find creative ways of delivering important information to our producers. As luck would have it, three universities from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (Ohio State, Penn State, and West Virginia’s Future Generations University) were awarded an ACER Access Grant in autumn 2019. The grant’s primary purpose was to conduct two surveys and collect information to help develop marketing opportunities across the region. Along with the surveys going out across the 3 states, outreach programs have been presented virtually with the next webinar launching at 7 PM on December 17th. COVID-19 slowed the survey timeline, but the first program series came out in June helping producers struggling to sell maple product during the pandemic. This was the first of what would become a series of monthly programs. In the months to follow, UVM Proctor Research Center and The Cornell Maple Program started producing virtual programs as well. In addition, we here at Ohio State University launched this new Ohio State Maple website that took much of my previous posts and expanded it to include contributions from additional authors as well as a host of education, extension, research, and other maple-related content.
For Ohio State University, decisions to drastically alter the long-established Extension model of outreach and education have not been easy decisions to make nor been made lightly. We hope our audiences understand and appreciate our commitment to new and virtual programming, but we also understand that virtual remote programming is far from perfect. We also understand that in the rural portions of our state internet connections are less than optimal providing barriers to accessibility. Many have found ways to adapt, and we are also recording and archiving programs so you can view them later at your convenience. We are also looking into ways we can deliver this current and relevant outreach to our Amish maple producers community
Where does this leave us going into the winter months, and when will in-person programming return? I cannot speak for other institutions because health rules vary from state-to-state, but this is what I see happening at OSU. Right now, we are operating under Ohio’s health mandate. Group size maximums are still set at 10 people (including instructors), though with increasing case levels, all in-person meetings are now on hold except for critical circumstances. Everyone including the instructor must wear a mask, and it is preferred that meetings be held outside. All meetings must strictly follow CDC guidelines. Because of the current and strict regulations at the state and university level, we have decided to continue with the path of virtual leaning. It is not unforeseeable to see the trend continuing far into 2021. A committee is currently planning the 2021 Ohio Maple Days, and it will be presented in a virtual format. Plans are to present the program virtually so that everyone can stay safe at home and view the program. The Ohio Maple Producers Association is making provisions to make the program available to those who do not have internet, details forthcoming. Pre-registration for the 2021 Ohio Maple Days will be required.
As we approach winter, uncertainty still looms on the horizon. I encourage you all to be patient, and if and as often as you can, to take advantage of the virtual programs being offered. We will continue to keep you posted on upcoming programs and events on the Ohio State Maple site. Just like you, I deeply miss the opportunity to attend events like the Lake Erie Maple Expo and fellowship in-person with everyone at the Ohio Maple Days event. Not being able to walk into a room filled with polished stainless and not being able to visit with my fellow producers is more than disappointing. Eventually, we will move beyond COVID-19, and the events we look forward too will return. And when they do, they will be bigger and better than ever. For now, be safe and stay healthy!