The coronavirus pandemic will not stop 23 new members of the Resource Education and Agricultural Leadership Program — otherwise known as REAL Oregon — from attempting to hold in-person gatherings at five cities across the state beginning in November.
REAL Oregon announced its fourth class on Oct. 8, including nine participants directly involved in production agriculture, five from agribusiness or other natural resources organizations, three in timber production and forestry, three in the transportation sector for agricultural products, two university faculty employees and one from a nonprofit foundation.
Greg Addington, REAL Oregon program director, said this year will look much different from the first three classes, given the local and statewide regulations in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
However, Addington said he believes each meeting can still be held on location, with changes to ensure proper social distancing and facial coverings.
"I've been in contact with the facilities. We tried to make sure the room spaces are larger than we normally have, for those people to spread out," Addington said. "We may have to make adjustments. We may have to shift to different locations if we need to. But we're going to try to make it work."
Established in 2017, REAL Oregon's mission is to showcase the diversity of agriculture and natural resources statewide, while training future leaders in professional development skills such as public speaking, board governance, strategic planning and media relations.
Trips are scheduled for Nov. 2-5 in Klamath Falls, Dec. 8-10 in Roseburg, Jan. 12-14 in Newport, Feb. 9-11 in Boardman and March 16-18 in Salem.
A graduation ceremony will be held later in March, if all goes according to plan.
In past years, REAL Oregon classes were capped at 30 participants, though Addington said they accepted fewer members this year to give more room and flexibility amid coronavirus restrictions.
Addington said this year's class will also be responsible for their own lodging and, possibly, their own transportation, since rooms will be limited to single-occupancy and they may not be able to maintain enough distance in buses or vans.
In exchange, admission fees were reduced from $2,500 to $2,000.
At first, Addington said he and the program's board of directors did not know what to do. The pandemic already forced the previous class to cancel its final trip to Boardman in March, instead meeting virtually for a half-day over Zoom. Addington said they are still waiting to hold a formal graduation ceremony for Class 3.
Ultimately, Addington said they felt virtual sessions were a poor substitute for networking and building relationships that are a hallmark of the program.
"We decided, probably in June, to move forward with the class knowing we would have to be flexible," he said.
Addington said the Class 4 schedule will be adjusted as needed, depending on what happens with the pandemic going forward and tracking additional outbreaks of the virus. He conceded this year's program may end up consisting of a combination of in-person and virtual events.
Jake Gibbs, of Lone Rock Resources in Roseburg and board chairman for REAL Oregon, says the previous three successful years demonstrates the value of REAL Oregon to natural resource professionals.
"The level of interest and support from participants to program backers for continuing and expanding this program during these unprecedented times affirms the desire to provide an opportunity to connect and learn with our peers," he said.