Blogging on the range: Farmers link to consumers via social media
Farmers and ranchers say their use of social media helps them reach people who are unfamiliar with agriculture. Siskiyou County cattle rancher Jeff Fowle, above, says he hopes his online messages will influence the non-farming public's perceptions of agriculture.
Whether he's strolling through the corral, doing payroll at his desk or checking on a newborn calf, Stanislaus County dairy farmer Ray Prock likes to stop by what he calls his "virtual watercooler" to chat about his favorite topic: agriculture.
He does this by logging on to his Twitter account, a social networking Web site that allows users to exchange quick, frequent messages known as tweets. By firing up his computer or turning on his smartphone, Prock can get a glimpse of what people in the global community are saying—and talk back to them.
That's important, he said, because with so much misinformation out there about where food comes from and how it's produced, farmers have a responsibility to speak up and set the record straight. And with social media, they now have a tool to help them reach virtually anybody anywhere at any time.
"I started to use it as a way to put a face on the farmer and make the farmer human again," said Prock. "If you're not part of the discussion, then you are the discussion, and if you're being discussed, you might as well be there."
It is no wonder that social media tools are gaining use among farmers and ranchers, who are increasingly turning to online networking applications such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to help bridge the gap between them and consumers.
The trend is noteworthy considering that 36 percent of U.S. farms currently still don't have computers and 41 percent don't have Internet access, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But where there is access, social media are penetrating the farming community. A recent American Farm Bureau Federation survey of farmers and ranchers aged 18-35 indicates that among the 92 percent who use computers, 46 percent regularly plug in to some form of social media.
Stanislaus County dairy farmer Ray Prock says social media allow farmers to fulfill their responsibility to speak up and set the record straight about agricultural issues.
AFBF spokesman Mace Thornton credits the rise in use of smartphones on farms for driving the adoption of Twitter and Facebook.
"I think social media is definitely here to stay on the farm, especially as farmers continue to embrace the need to get out and put their names and faces on the issues that are confronting them on a daily basis," he said. "They can take their personal stories about how they're being impacted and share them through this medium without having the filter or gatekeeper of traditional news media."
Kings County dairy farmer Dino Giacomazzi said he began using social media because he was frustrated with how certain activist groups were misrepresenting animal agriculture. So he wanted to make himself available to consumers who want to get the real scoop from a real dairyman.
He uses Facebook to draw people to his "cause," which currently has more than 3,500 members whose common interest is saving California's milk supply from potentially harmful legislation. Giacomazzi also has a Web site, where he writes a blog about other dairy and farming issues.
"Nobody tells their story better than farmers do, and I think their personal stories are very powerful," said Mark Looker, an agriculture communications consultant who encouraged Giacomazzi to start his own blog. "If you can get them to talk about what they do for a living, that's going to have an impact on people who are non-farmers."
That's exactly what Jeff Fowle, a Siskiyou County cattle rancher, is doing on his blog and with his Twitter posts. He said not only does he rely on social media to share news and ideas with other farmers and ranchers, but they also have become an important tool for reaching people who are unfamiliar with agriculture and may have different opinions.
He said even a simple post on Twitter about something mundane and routine on his ranch could potentially have an impact on the non-farming public's perceptions about agriculture, clarify issues, dispel myths and promote healthy discussions. That's why this spring, when he installed pivot sprinklers on his farm, he posted a tweet about it because he felt it was important to show how farmers and ranchers are continually trying to improve water efficiency.
"(Social media) is an avenue that I think more of agriculture needs to take advantage of," he said. "But I think we also have to approach it in a wise way and do it systematically. We need to have a strategy so that we can be as effective as possible at utilizing this technology."
There's also more to social media than professional networking and making friendly connections, said Michele Payn-Knoper, a speaker and agriculture consultant in Indiana who started Twitter's #AgChat, a live online chat about everything agriculture on Tuesdays from 5 to 7 p.m. PT.
While social media are an excellent tool for educating consumers about agriculture, Payn-Knoper said farmers and ranchers could also gain some education through social media by "listening louder."
"Social media is an opportunity to have windows into people's thought, and as such, you can see the trends that are upcoming. You can see the concern and can probe as to why those concerns exist," she said.
She dismissed the misconception that social media are a youth fad, citing statistics from both Facebook and Twitter. For example, Facebook now boasts 300 million users; that's nearly the current U.S. population. Its fastest-growing segment is people 35 and older, while more than two-thirds of Facebook users are beyond college age.
Likewise, Twitter is not a kid thing either. Adults 35 to 49 represent about 42 percent of its users and the site is predominantly driven as a business tool.
Kings County dairy farmer Barbara Martin said using social media was "all new" to her. She started slowly with Facebook, which she said her college-aged kids thought was embarrassing at first. They also didn't get Twitter and thought it was "totally nerdy," she said.
But then she started writing her blog in August.
"I thought, if we don't start introducing ourselves to our consumers, we're headed for huge problems," said Martin. "Social media is a great way to connect with non-farmers. They can ask you questions and get to know you just by your posts."
In one of her first posts, Martin wrote about a recent encounter with a fellow dairywoman whose husband had committed suicide earlier this year because the dairy business "just got so hard." Moved by her story and inspired by her strength, Martin decided to write about it but had no idea the response she would get for her Aug. 27 blog entry. Even her children were impressed when they saw the number of hits she was getting.
"I had gotten so many calls and e-mails," she said. "I'm just little old me. Even a couple of responses amazes me, let alone having 500 people look at your blog in a day. It's humbling. You just put your heart out there and you hope it helps."
Payn-Knoper said while she understands that social media may not be for everyone, she also stressed that farmers and ranchers "have to do a better job of educating and connecting with consumers," and significant inroads could be made by getting more of them on social media.
She noted that groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have had a more than 25-fold increase in their social media following in just the last nine months. And celebrities such as comedienne Ellen DeGeneres, who's an active Twitter user and HSUS advocate, can sway public opinion about agriculture, she said.
"We have no choice but to adapt," she said. "Agriculture's voice needs to be heard loud and clear to overcome pundits like that. The harsh reality is that we will be driven by consumers who do not understand agriculture and anti-agriculture rhetoric if we don't choose to take 10 to 15 minutes a day to reach out and communicate with folks."
The California Farm Bureau Federation has established sites on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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