During the first couple months of the coronavirus crisis, it was as if time stood still. The rise of COVID-19 caused serious disruption in industry communications and the facilitation of public discourse. Meetings, conventions, and a myriad of other functions were cancelled out of caution and to remain in compliance with crowd size limitations and social distancing guidelines. However, there are certain discussions that are best done face to face. In agriculture, photos and other visual aids (charts, graphs, photos, etc.) are often needed to engage participants in robust dialogue about complex issues.
In response to grower and nursery requests, New Varieties Development & Management Corp. (NVDMC) had begun planning citrus town hall meetings to facilitate an exchange of ideas in the trial and production of citrus varieties. There is a steep learning curve for some of the promising experimental varieties now available, and several of the older varieties were presenting challenges to production and marketing teams.
The hope was to assemble growers, production teams, packers, and researchers to discuss what is working, what is not working, and where additional research might be needed. However, this concept had been tried several times previously, with very poor results. Large crowds would gather with notebooks in hand, but few in attendance were willing to share any meaningful information. Conference calls were even less successful. Even before COVID-19 arrived, there was consensus that these meetings needed to take place, but little confidence they would be effective. A new approach was needed, but what?
A New, Virtual Town Hall
Once spring arrived, NVDMC found video conference technologies (primarily, but not exclusively Zoom) helpful for meetings with individuals and organizations. Calls gradually expanded to include larger groups appropriately spaced around conference tables. The video option seemed to enrich the conversation and made it possible to exchange information, share screens and presentations, and effectively simulate a physical meeting. It seemed to make sense to move forward with the town hall concept using Zoom.
Each call would be centered on a specific variety. Growers and nurseries licensed for the featured variety were invited, and an industrywide invitation was extended. Breeders, scientists, and research teams working with the variety were encouraged to participate. Media outlets were not included — not out of secrecy or confidentiality — out of concern that it might cause participants to be less forthcoming.
The first variety town hall generated a lot of attention. All of the key groups participated, as well as Extension agents, crop consultants, and growers considering planting the variety. Bandwidth issues presented some challenges, but overall, it was very successful. As with most groups, it took a little while to develop a set of best practices, such as muting lines and avoiding background distractions. Following the first town hall, growers called and sent emails expressing their excitement and hope that the use of this technology would be expanded. Many participants found the environment less intimidation than a large, physical gathering. And it was certainly safer and more convenient.
The screen-share feature allowed presenters to display of photographs and research information. People in their offices typically use their computer audio and video while mobile users favored the dial-in option. The chat line was a useful tool for those with poor audio, weak cellular signals, and for those who preferred not to speak. Questions coming in over the chat were shared aloud and addressed conversationally and through private and group chats.
The beauty of the whole experience extended beyond the mere engagement of industry in dialogue about common challenges. It resulted in a real-world, practical exchange of information among participants. Growers gained information that they could immediately implement in their groves, and the scientific community gained clarity about how to focus their efforts.
Field Meetings Offer Added Benefits
There were incremental improvements to the next few NVDMC Citrus Variety Town Hall Zoom meetings. On a couple occasions, the moderator announced that the meeting would be recorded. There was some concern this might discourage open dialogue, but it did not seem to be a problem. Recording makes it possible for those unable to make the call, to listen to the conversation at a later time. Recordings also ensure that details of the conversation are not lost to incomplete note taking. Participants also began to install the mobile app on tablets and cell phones. This not only made it possible to participate from any location (pickup, vacation, etc.), but it allowed to take the device to the field.
Field presence made it possible to show real-time examples of disease, growth habits, crop load, fruit appearance, premature fruit drop, die-back, etc. Mobile devices in the field may be the most promising development so far. It helps when the person in the field uses a headset or other means of reducing background noise. But either way, the visual benefits outweigh the negatives.
The use of videoconferencing technology for grower/nursery town hall meetings was born out of necessity. It’s admittedly hard to find a silver lining in a crisis like this, but this effective communication tool will clearly have utility in the new normal—whatever that is.