Alexis Close directs training programs for beginner-level farmers and gardeners at the Appalachian Resource Conservation and Development Council, a Johnson City-based nonprofit. She said she’s seen a bump in participation since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northeast Tennessee in March.
Build It Up East Tennessee normally accepts 35 families a year into its organic gardening program, which runs from March through September, Close said Tuesday. Participants receive monthly training, as well as tools, seeds and help with tilling.
In January, when Build It Up recruited the next round of participants, the program started with the usual 35 or so families, Close said. But once the pandemic reached Northeast Tennessee, she said that Grow Appalachia — a larger nonprofit that helps fund the program — allowed Build It Up to reopen and expand its enrollment for the year.
“We’ve been able to help around 50 families rather than the usual 35 so far this year,” said Close, a 35-year-old Johnson City resident.
Most of the additions were participants who had already been in the program, she said.
“They already knew what was going on, and we could just help them directly with supplies and materials,” Close said. “In the middle of trying to move everything online, having to onboard a whole bunch of new families just felt like too much.”
The Field School, a beginner-level farming program, typically trains participants at eight or nine farms during its May through September summer session, Close said.
“We visit all kinds of different farms,” Close said. “Fruits and vegetables, orchards, livestock, agrotourism operations. We really just try to introduce folks to successful operating farms in Northeast Tennessee.”
The trainees don’t have to attend all of the summer sessions — just whichever ones appeal to them — and Close said that on a really good training day, 20 people at most will show up. But this year, she said, the summer session was run entirely online, and for free. (There’s usually a cost.) Participation rapidly increased.
“The first couple that we did, we were maybe getting 40 or 50 registrations, then maybe 15 or 20 people would watch,” Close said. “By June, we were ... getting hundreds of registrations [for] each workshop.”
The program’s Zoom subscription capped attendance at 100 people per meeting. When access was denied for would-be participants, the Field School began livestreaming the classes on YouTube and creating Facebook events for them. A beekeeping course in August received 700 RSVPs and thousands of views on Facebook.
“The numbers blew up,” Close said. “People were just sharing it.”
Close said that some of those participants lived as far away as South Carolina and West Virginia. She said she wondered if more local people might also have participated because of the economic recession.
“There was initially a disruption to our national food system [when the pandemic spread],” Close said. “I think folks see the value in growing their own food and becoming self-sufficient. And there’s still a lot of unemployment here.”
But Close said it’s hard to know that for certain, simply because it’s been harder to talk with participants. While the numbers have gone up for both Build It Up and the Field School, she said the shift to online teaching and social distancing practices have limited her ability to get to know participants — and participants’ ability to get to know each other.
“There’s not as much interaction [this year],” Close said by phone Tuesday. “We try to build a community around the families in the [Build It Up] program. …That’s been missing this year.”
Teaching online “allows for a larger audience, but it’s less personal,” Close added. “That’s kind of the balance.”
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