By STEVE BROWN
One side effect of tight budgets at university extension services and other educational programs is the increasing number of webinars, in which agricultural knowledge and research are presented online, complete with video presentations and question-and-answer sessions.
Webinar formats tend to be similar: One or two experts offer PowerPoint presentations on specific ag topics, followed by a question-and-answer session.
Two organizations that convene their classrooms on the Internet are eXtension and the National Center for Appropriate Technology.
* eXtension, as the name implies, is built on the expertise at land-grant universities across the U.S. In addition to farming, it offers resources on disaster issues, energy, family, health, gardening and pest management.
Terry Meisenbach, communications and marketing leader for the eXtension Initiative, said one advantage of webinars is they can cross borders and go to places where resources are limited. Online audiences range from 20 to 200, depending on the topic, he said.
One of eXtension's most popular programs is eOrganic, which addresses the challenges of organic production and new techniques. The program has produced dozens of webinars, which are also available on the website usually within 24 hours of the original presentation, Meisenbach said.
Farm topics are not limited to organic production. They include manure management, plant breeding, processing and production of corn, soybeans, cotton, berries, fruit, livestock and dairy. These, too, are archived on the website.
"We get comments from farmers like: 'I can work all day. If I want to pick up something at night, I can go online,'" he said.
Online courses offered as modules allow learners to study sequentially or to focus on specific topics. Each module includes learning objectives, lessons, background and guiding questions, supporting resources and self-quiz sections. Materials are also available in PDF format.
Nearly all webinars are free, supported by the nonprofit eXtension Foundation and grants from nonprofit organizations.
* NCAT provides high-tech and low-tech information on farming, energy use, renewable-energy technology and building construction.
As an ag economist and former farmer, Jeff Schahczenski has worked on the organization's agricultural side, the National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service, also known by its former name, ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer to Rural Areas).
"Our niche is sustainable ag, which overlays everything we do," he said.
Webinars have focused on organics, but there's a lot of overlap with conventional farming, Schahczenski said. "Pressure from the drought leads to more interest in resilient soil and cover crops. Organic is about managing inputs. There's a merging of interests between new ways of pest management and crop resiliency."
Because ATTRA is largely supported by USDA grants, the webinars are free of charge. "But we didn't say it was free," he said. "We told people you're getting your tax dollars back."
Past webinars are accessible through the website, and more are in the works.
ATTRA also has a toll-free number for direct contact with six ag specialists around the country. More than 40 percent of the inquiries concern the reduction of ag chemical use; 25 percent, raising animals and pasture management. Other inquiries include crop diversity, marketing and energy conservation. Some 400-plus publications are available on PDF or for mailing to farmers without high-speed Internet access.