In some ways, it felt like the ‘old’ days – pre-COVID-19, that is. A farm open house, new technology on display, a chance to talk to people and learn a few things.
But much wasn’t business as usual in what may have been the first in-person Ontario farm event open to the public since the COVID-19 pandemic changed life in Canada and around the world about four months ago.
The pioneers of the new-style farm open house were Grand River Robotics of Fergus, who were faced with the challenge of showcasing new liquid manure aeration technology from Ireland that was making its North American debut on a Perth County dairy farm.
The Dairypower Equipment Smart Manure Aeration System aerates manure regularly to keep it in a consistent, suspended state and ready to spread at any time.
Some things just don’t translate well to a Zoom call.
“Seeing it in person is much more eye-opening than pictures or videos and you have the chance to ask questions of someone has knowledge at the same time,” explained Robyn Walsh of Grand River Robotics in a follow up interview a day after the event.
So, the Grand River Robotics team plunged into hosting a pandemic-friendly open house that could still bring people together while respecting physical distancing and other public health limitations.
The first change came with the ads placed in Ontario Farmer, which described the event and when it was taking place, but listed no farm address and instead asked interested attendees to call or go online to book tickets.
A series of half hour time slots were available for booking, limited to eight people at a time between 11 am and 2 pm to keep attendance at a manageable level. A follow up email a couple of days before the event provided the exact address and a reminder of the protocols that needed to be followed: stay six feet apart, use hand sanitizer, avoid shaking hands.
At the open house, staff at a registration desk stocked with masks and hand sanitizer welcomed all visitors and outlined distancing rules, and the sunny weather and large farm property made it easy to host the event outdoors without people getting too close.
Drinks and snacks were provided; the only difference was that all the baked goods were individually wrapped instead of visitors selecting from open boxes of cookies or donuts.
About 35 people showed up, and according to Walsh, feedback from participants to the new format was overwhelmingly positive.
“People felt comfortable, there was no stress of having to squeeze through crowds and you could maintain distance,” she noted. “People liked the advantage of planning ahead; I think it helped attendees feel comfortable about going to an event.”
And it was a positive experience for Grand River too, so much so in fact, that Walsh believes the company will be running most of its future events in a similar format.
“It gives our staff a better chance to chat with people and discuss with each of the groups visiting – and everybody has the opportunity to ask questions,” she said. “It helps us to know exact numbers to expect and we know that if people have to sign up ahead of time and commit to a time, they’re pretty interested.”
The ticket system also meant a list of names and contact information for everyone who attended; in a worst-case scenario of an attendee with a positive COVID-19 test within the two weeks of being at the open house, that list would simplify contact tracing for public heath officials.
Attendees generally followed their selected time slots pretty closely, Walsh noted and had they had more response than available tickets, it would have been easy to extend the time slots that day or schedule an additional day for more tours.
“We are really impressed with how well it went, and we’re grateful to people for coming out,” she added.