Keeping it real in a virtual world

fb countrycornerCanceled. Canceled. Canceled. Since the coronavirus pandemic started shutting down group gath­erings in the spring, countless live events have been altered, postponed or called off completely. Concerts and conferences, parties and perfor­mances, trainings and trade shows have all been affected.

But you can’t cancel the need to stay informed, learn new skills and connect with colleagues and friends. That’s why “virtual” is now the trend for events that do continue in the COVID-cautious world.

For example, the popular Farm Progress Show, touted as America’s largest agricultural event, went virtual back in September. The National FFA Convention con­ducted all of its activities virtually in late October. This month, I had planned to attend the Ag Media Summit in Kansas City with my communications co-workers, but that conference was reimagined as an online-only event. Organizers said the decision was “based on growing concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on our community’s ability to travel to the conference.”

Fortunately, technology can easily bring people together and disseminate information through computers and mobile devices. In fact, business has grown exponen­tially for virtual platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Webex and Zoom video conferencing. At the peak of COVID-related shutdowns in the spring, Microsoft reported a 200% increase in virtual meetings, and in late August, the number of Zoom’s business customers had risen more than 458% year over year.

Admittedly, going virtual has its advantages. Event organizers can save a tremendous amount of money by cutting costs on venues, equipment and catering, while expanding their audience to those who want to attend, but don’t have the time or budget to travel. While effectiveness is hard to measure, surveys show that engagement can be equal or higher during virtual events compared with live ones.

But virtual events aren’t ideal in every situation. You can’t kick the tires on a new combine at an online farm show, and it’s hard to make new friends at a Zoom-based net­working reception. When wrapping up reports from the virtual Farm Progress Show, farm broadcaster Max Armstrong confessed how much he missed the people this year. “You still got to see the equip­ment,” he said, “but there was no personal interaction. You couldn’t walk into an exhibit, look company representatives eye to eye and ask about their product. There wasn’t that one-on-one contact this year.”

Here at MFA, the safety of our members, customers and employees has forced us to rethink activities such as our buyers markets, sales kickoff, educational workshops, plot tours and field days. As you can see on the following page, MFA Incorporated’s 2020 annual meeting is the latest event we’ve altered to assuage social-distancing concerns.

Held every year the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the annual meeting is not only a tradition but also an important part of MFA’s coopera­tive structure. It’s more than just a bylaws requirement. The annual meeting embodies the cooperative principle of democratic member control. The event brings together directors, members and staff and gives farmer-owners an opportunity hear directly from MFA leadership.

This year, however, the meeting’s format will be configured differently. Instead of hundreds of attendees congregating in one central location, multiple meeting sites will be des­ignated across MFA’s trade territory. Delegates and advisory board mem­bers will be invited to attend these meetings in person, where they will view prerecorded messages from MFA Incorporated leadership and vote on cooperative business. The reports will be available online for a limited time to give all members a chance to review. I hope you’ll take time to do so.

MFA Incorporated isn’t the only cooperative to take this approach. Our sister co-op, MFA Oil, will have a similar setup for its annual meeting on Dec. 14. The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, of which MFA is a member, recently announced its annual meeting in February will be virtual. Many electric co-ops that serve our rural communities are also opting for online events.

Regardless of format, the purpose of MFA’s annual meeting remains the same—keeping members engaged with their cooperative and informed about its performance and plans. We’d love to see our farmer-owners face to face on Dec. 1, shake their hands, share a meal and swap some stories. But for now, MFA is doing its best to keep us all safely connected, until we can meet again.

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