Growing live, virtually

L-R: Travis Cranmer, OMAFRA vegetable crop specialist and Ian and Nathan Teetzel. Here, they are looking at bulbils, an alternative method of propagating garlic, that will be harvested in a week’s time and prepared for fall planting. Photos by Glenn Lowson.
Nathan Teetzel is pictured with a clutch of onion sets at his farm near Exeter, Ontario.
From front to back: Michelle Cortens, tree fruit specialist, Perennia and research associates Jill MacDonald, Shane Wood, and Jonathan Bent. The team is pictured harvesting a Honeycrisp thinning trial.

Six years into growing garlic, Nathan Teetzel still considers himself an apprentice.


While he and his brother Ian inherited their grandfather’s savvy in growing onion sets, they are on a steep learning curve with 60 acres of garlic near Exeter, Ontario.  


Garlic, says Teetzel, is such a specialized crop that only a handful of farmers know how to cultivate it for profitable yields in Ontario’s climate. The pungent crop is more at home in the Mediterranean. 


For the 50-plus members of the Garlic Growers of Ontario, information transfer is pivotal to moving the sector to a critical mass to supply metropolitan retailers consistently. He predicts that the global COVID-19 pandemic and cancelled meetings will have untold effects on efficiency. 


“We’re living through groundhog days,” says Teetzel who has let go of external activities. “I think we have become more inwardly-focussed and that’s not a good thing.”


One lifeline this past summer has been the weekly visits of Travis Cranmer, one of Ontario’s four vegetable crop specialists who ran a leek moth trial in garlic and a sterile fly release project in onion sets. For Teetzel, this was a valuable opportunity to assess disease and insect pressure in the crops and to share observations.


“Travis Cranmer is very instrumental in encouraging the garlic industry in Ontario to flourish,” says Teetzel, “because he doesn’t have a personal economic interest. He’s an independent voice, very realistic and down-to-earth.”


Going forward, the prospects for technology transfer are daunting. 


“Zoom meetings don’t cut it,” says Teetzel. “I don’t experience interaction and I don’t look forward to them.”


For his part, Cranmer has been challenged with executing his extension responsibilities.  Last spring, several Integrated Pest Management (IPM) scouting workshops which would normally take six hours in person, had to be telescoped to two hours via a Zoom meeting. Multiple sessions were recorded and posted. (Link here:


 “It’s tough to be engaged and engaging in this environment,” says Cranmer. “It’s tough for growers because there is screen overload. But the technology is getting better every month.”


One success is the use of, a question-and-answer polling platform for remote meetings. Growers can access the website on a smartphone, enter the event code and participate in real-time polling. 


Cranmer partnered with ag ministry colleague Dennis Van Dyk to host several IPM seminars last May. Growers could see a photo of an insect pest, and then answer the Slido poll of five examples of what it might be. After polling, participants could see how many got the correct answer. The hosts then explained the defining characteristics of the pest.  


Did this technique work?  When the growers were polled at the end of the seminar with the same set of questions, correct responses typically rose from 20 to 60 per cent to 60-95 per cent. These metrics were worthy of sharing not only with the growers but the managers of extension services. For the subscription cost of $199, Slido is a very useful tool.


Challenges remain in sharing in-depth technical data such as trial results, but Cranmer maintains that the future of extension is digital.


 “One of the Ontario ag ministry’s strengths is the archive of factsheets that’s been built over the years. Those resources can be updated and made available online, in due time.”


The biggest hurdle is that many rural farmers don’t always have access to high-speed Internet. That’s a bottleneck that’s been exposed even more during the pandemic.   


The effects of cancelling trade shows and field days will be felt in the short and long term. These events frequently offer the expertise of international experts and the opportunity for face-to-face dialogue. What’s lost is the relationship-building that leads to trust.  


To overcome this deficit, the Nova Scotia Fruit Growers’ Association decided to make a virtual event out of its annual orchard tour in August 2020. The expertise of Michelle Cortens, tree fruit specialist, was tapped at Perennia Food and Agriculture Inc in Kentville.


With only two months of lead time, the amateur photographer hustled to film video with a smartphone and Go-Pro camera at several orchards in the Annapolis Valley. She used a tripod and macro-lens camera for the close-up shots. And she used entry-level editing software. 


In planning the orchard visits and researcher interviews, she realized that organizing the information into separate videos  -- replant disease, for example -- would be helpful for independent viewing. In the end, she recorded nine videos plus a promotional trailer.


“The storytelling worked,” says Cortens. “We’ve had 2,500 YouTube views and the numbers keep rising.”


Cortens shares technical learnings from the project. 


First, early planning is important to videotape different stages of apple production. 


Secondly, sound quality is paramount. Add a voice-over. Don’t attempt recording in the field without specialized equipment.


Thirdly, editing will proceed more smoothly in landscape mode on your smartphone. Don’t record video in portrait mode. 


And lastly, buy a selfie-stick to be your own video director. 


“I considered this an opportunity to be creative, to bring people along with me,” says Cortens. “Find the right format to have the most impact.”


Like garlic grower Nathan Teetzel, everyone is an apprentice in learning new ways of sharing information.  

Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of this story and speaks with Travis Cranmer, Ontario vegetable crop specialist. Travis describes, a question-and-answer polling platform that allows participants to see photos and slides on technical subjects. Click here to listen to The Grower Calling podcast.
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Monday, October 26, 2020

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