Tuskegee University Cooperative Extension (TUCE), just like so many others affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, realized the importance to continue to provide their clientele with valuable information and opportunities that was still available to them even in the midst of this unusual challenge.
Therefore, TUCE rose to the challenge of still providing invaluable information and COVID-19 relief information to their clientele through virtual platforms. Examples of the work accomplished during these trying times was in the Food Systems/Food Safety and Small Businesses.
TUCE launched the first virtual conference/symposium at Tuskegee University through EarthWeek2020, which was a series of five symposia dealing with the complete value chain of hemp/cannabis and had over 109 participants from all over the country. The virtual platform continued for another 6 sessions as the #Earth2TU program (to keep the symposia going throughout the year) adding another 134 participants. The #Earth2TU program topics included the Alabama Hemp Industry, the history of Lowndes County and production agriculture and its connection to Civil Rights History, African American Churches and Food Security, African Americans in the Cannabis Industry, and Land Access. Fact Sheets, Bulletins, and digital media were additional communication outputs from the program.
#Earth2TU educates key stakeholders including producers, students, consumers and others in order to bring about awareness and change in rural and urban communities. This was to address the growing interest of sustainable and equitable systems and encouraging growth in the numbers of local and regional producers and consumers of such products will help revitalize rural and urban economies. Accounts of participant knowledge with respect to practices related to industrial hemp, cannabis, and racial equity in food systems, including other areas in agriculture and will utilize knowledge and skills gained and change their behavior to improve operations and interactions in their local food system.
In the Black Belt Region in Alabama, small businesses have a history of facing challenges of sustainability and face issues such as 1) Access to capital; 2) Lack of social capital/networks; and 3) Balancing quality and growth. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 and the accompanying recession has seemed to exacerbate the challenges faced.
Faced with the other accompanying challenges of the pandemic, TUCE decided to design virtual summits to address the needs of Black Belt small businesses. The first of the two summits was the Rural Prosperity Summit (RPS), done in partnership with USDA-OPPE. This summit was organized in three days around the themes 1) Achieving E-Connectivity in Rural America, 2) Improving Quality of Life/Developing the Rural Economy, and 3) Supporting a Rural Workforce/Harnessing Technological Innovations.
The second summit was the Annual Booker T. Washington Economic Development Summit. Another three-day virtual event, this one focused on small businesses’ survival in the new normal through 1) Access to Capital; 2) Digital Marketing; and 3) Risk Management.
Together the summits produced 345 participants predominantly located in the AL Black Belt, who gained skills that they anticipate using over the next year in their business and/or workplace.
Our two longest serving conferences (Annual Farmers Conference at 129 years, and Professional Agricultural Workers Conference at 78 years) switched to a totally digital platform as well. Both of these platforms surpassed traditional expectations as far as attendees, further raising the bar for Extension programming beyond state lines. It seems as if even if we go back to face to face, we have uncovered a platform that could transform programming into the future.
Submitted by Jacquelyn Carlisle