Over a few days in March, regular life changed for millions as restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 encouraged Americans to distance themselves from others.
Offices and schools closed, and sports were cancelled. Summer camps would close, too, leaving children and teens with idle hands.
For many young people in Louisiana, the 4-H program from the LSU AgCenter helped fill the void with online activities and contests designed to keep their minds working, said Antavion “Tay” Moore, last year’s 4-H state president.
“When everything else fell off, 4-H stayed,” he said. “4-H was there. They continued to provide opportunities for young people to grow into leaders. They could sit at home and still participate in activities that are near and dear to their hearts.”
4-H created a daily virtual recess for young students in the spring, and hundreds of 4-H’ers across the state competed and congregated online for the first virtual 4-H University. Moore, who recently graduated from Ringgold High School, even won the 4-H Has Talent show with his classical piano skills.
“They really kept me busy,” Moore said. “Events were cancelled, but my calendar stayed full for 4-H activities.”
While 4-H reached young people across the state, the AgCenter extension agents and researchers found new ways to serve the people of Louisiana.
“Our people have stepped up and done a phenomenal job,” said William B. Richardson, LSU vice president for agriculture. “I get a lot of great comments about what they are doing, creative, innovative things, things that will probably continue on.”
In January the world learned of the new coronavirus spreading in a province of China. By the end of the month, the United States had its first case in Washington state. Louisiana saw its first positive case in March in New Orleans, and the state soon became a focal point for the nation.
“The general feeling was that medical science would keep this from growing,” Richardson said. “It just surprised people how quickly it spread. When New Orleans became a hot spot it put the emphasis on us.”
As the world began taking precautions to slow the virus, Louisiana followed. By March 12, LSU announced that university classes would go online. Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the next day that K-12 schools would close. On March 16, Richardson instructed AgCenter employees to work from home, and on March 17, all AgCenter offices were closed to visitors.
In the first week of statewide social distancing, many in Louisiana were searching for answers about how to grocery shop and go about their lives safely. Wenqing “Wennie” Xu, the AgCenter food safety specialist, and Evelyn Watts, the seafood extension specialist for the AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, created a fact sheets, posters and videos to help the community respond to public health concerns.
The fact sheets, available in English and Spanish — and some in Vietnamese — answered concerns for managers and customers of grocery and retail stores and restaurants and seafood processing plants. They gave tips on how to safely deliver and receive food. Another set of tips and posters in multiple languages educated shoppers and employees how to distance themselves from others in stores.
“We helped people by providing a message that is consistent with the federal and state regulatory agencies,” Xu said. “We also provided science-based educational materials to address the urgent needs of small producers and processors, food retailers, restaurants and consumers within the state.”
Food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari developed fact sheets on best practices to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 at farmers markets and best practices for safely harvesting fresh fruits and vegetables.
Through sharing the fact sheets and posters on social media and AgCenter websites and targeted emails, the materials were seen by tens of thousands of Louisiana residents.
Orders from Gov. John Bel Edwards in mid-March limited gatherings to 50 people or fewer. This presented a challenge to a longtime AgCenter tradition, the summer field days at agricultural research stations across the state, where researchers and extension specialists share the latest research results with farmers.
Instead of driving trailers full of producers around a field of test plots, the AgCenter experts created videos and articles with the help of the videographers and writers in the AgCenter Communications Department.
“The pandemic is not stopping us from doing research,” Richardson said after the first virtual field day at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in July. “Our research stations have stayed open.”
The new virtual format is actually reaching more producers because the videos can be seen at any time and require no travel, said Jeff Hoy, the Sugar Research Station resident coordinator.
Virtual field days allow the “presenters to include images and graphics in their talks that will add to the content, and by going virtual, we hope to acquaint a larger, broader audience with the important work going on at the Sugar Research Station,” he said.
As of August, the AgCenter had created six virtual field days, educating producers on the latest research in rice, wheat and oats, sugarcane, sweet potatoes, horticulture, other field crops and beef cattle. Even after in-person field days return, Richardson expects to have some virtual components remain.
“I think a lot of that will continue,” he said. “I don’t see that going away.”
When schools were closed across Louisiana in March, the 4-H program lost its most reliable connection to the youth of the state.
“Our program relies heavily on the agents working monthly with the youth and teachers at a school, so when schools closed, the direct communication with the youth stalled,” said Toby Lepley, AgCenter associate vice president and program leader for 4-H youth development.
As 4-H agents found ways to reach the school-age members directly, including the virtual recess activities, specialists began planning for the summer schedule. 4-H University, held each June on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, and 4-H summer camp at the Grant Walker Educational Center, near Pollock, Louisiana, are annual highlights for many.
“As we watched the world starting to fall apart for our 4-H members, we knew we had to make something happen, and that was 4-H University,” Lepley said.
The 106th 4-H University was held online June 22-25 with a theme of “Ignite Your Vision.” Nightly assemblies and contests went virtual. 4-H agents found innovative ways to ensure their members could participate.
When one of her 4-H’ers couldn’t leave her driver’s ed course in another parish for the sports broadcasting competition, Vernon Parish agent Kemberly Johnson got creative. She helped her competitors meet in a McDonald’s during a break in the course and use the fast food restaurant’s Wi-Fi for the eight-minute contest.
When Tay Moore needed a space to record his Mozart piece for the 4-H Has Talent competition, Karen Martin, the Northwest Region 4-H coordinator, helped him find a grand piano and a place to record at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.
“It was pretty easy to pull off, and it turned out great,” Moore said.
In all, 675 4-H’ers participated in 4-H University in 26 contests. About 200 were involved in the virtual leadership camp, Leadership for a Better Louisiana, which encourages leading through social change. Through the camp, 4-H’ers learned how they can use their talents and skills to lead change in their communities, said Meggan Franks, volunteer and leadership development specialist.
More than 1,300 Louisiana young people participated in the 4-H Virtual Summer Camp Program from June 8 to Aug. 6, said coordinator Adam O’Malley. The virtual camp included educational videos on Facebook and the Microsoft Teams group chat application.
“We covered a broad range of fun, engaging topics stretching from gardening to photography and videography to animal and culinary science with even more in between,” O’Malley said.
Restrictions designed to stall the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 remain in place across Louisiana. Richardson and other AgCenter leaders are hopeful that some traditional events can return in 2021, but if COVID-19 persists, Richardson knows the AgCenter is prepared to continue serving the people of Louisiana.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in the next few months,” Richardson said. “But we’re in a position that is as good as it can be.”
Many of the virtual forms of outreach that became crucial during the pandemic will likely supplement traditional educational forms in the future, Richardson said. Whatever the future holds, the agents, researchers and support employees of the AgCenter can continue fulfilling the organization’s mission, he said.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the way this organization responded,” Richardson said.
Kyle Peveto is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture.
(This article appears in the summer 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
A still from a video of Antavion “Tay” Moore, of Bienville Parish, captures the outgoing Louisiana 4-H president as he addresses 4-H’ers during an evening assembly of virtual 4-H University held online June 22-25.
Kristopher Criscione, a graduate student working at the AgCenter Hammond Research Station, discusses media for growing plants for this video for the station’s virtual field day.
A screen capture from a video of Brenda Tubaña shows the researcher speaking about best management practices at the Sugarcane Field Day in July 2020.