Their reasons are manyfold. Those with livestock spend energy trying to educate the public about responsible farming practices. Many are tweeting, blogging, videotaping and down- and uploading photos to inform themselves or others about production methods, machinery options and what works on their farms. Some even use the Internet tools to market commodities. Here’s how – and why – these farmers and industry representatives are using social media.
Dave Forgey has had a presence on the Internet for quite some time. His dairy’s Web site, www.forgraze.com, espouses his passion for intensive rotational grazing. He’s also maintained and written articles for the Web site of Pro-Grass-Tinators, a group of dedicated graziers (www.prograsstinators.com).
Yet, last fall, the Logansport, IN, grazier delved into social media. He has a following of about 325 people who know him as “grasscow” on Twitter.
Twitter, accessed by computer or phone, allows messages only 140 characters long. Most ag people use it to direct others to news stories or videos or make pithy comments on agriculture, government policy, sports or how the day is going. Their messages may be “retweeted” or passed on to others who choose to “follow” them and receive their tweets.
“I try to keep up on what’s going on in the world that’s impacting the dairy industry,” says 66-year-old Forgey, and Twitter helps him share what he’s found. But it took a good friend to convince him to utilize this social medium. In fact, that friend, Jim Hammer, Lafayette, IN, offered to gather and post tweets when Forgey can’t. They usually point their followers to online news stories or use ag statistics to make points.
They’re careful not to say Forgey’s method of dairying is better than the conventional method. “We try to keep an even keel because animal rights activists like to divide and conquer,” Forgey explains.
Then in January the grazier wrote a guest blog (a contraction of ‘Web log’ that is usually a commentary or considered online journaling) for the Indiana Dairy Council (see tinyurl.com/forgey).
The council asked him to regularly blog and also get on Facebook (an online social network). “I said, ‘Gosh, I’m doing just about everything I can do. I already have a tweet manager; where am I going to find a blog manager and a Facebook manager?’ ”
At this point, he’s questioning his success on Twitter.
“We’ve tweeted more than a thousand tweets and have 325 followers. But, as I look through our followers, a lot are agriculture. They do some of the same things and see what I’m saying. While that’s good we’re sharing amongst ourselves, I think to get the benefits of social media, we’ve got to get out to people who don’t know agriculture. I’m not sure I’m tweeting the right things to draw them.”
Others have the same concern, says Michele Payn-Knoper of Cause Matters Corp., which provides ag advocacy training and social media strategy (see www.michelepaynknoper.com). She founded AgChat and FoodChat, two scheduled Twitter “chats” where people discuss topics and questions submitted by the community on the agri-food business.
“From my experience with FoodChat – it’s designed to bring together food people and farmers – I have watched food people and farmers have difficult discussions they have never had before. So it can go beyond preaching to the choir if you build your community strategically,” Payn-Knoper says.
In the ag community, dairy producers make the most use of social media and are the most trained in it, she says. Their goal is largely to project positive images of farming and combat animal rightists’ concerns.
“It literally puts a face on a farmer. And a personality. We talk science, we talk research, we talk USDA nonstop. But what consumers relate to are people. And that’s the beauty of social media – it gives us a personal connection to millions,” Payn-Knoper says.
Hay growers should get on board, too, she urges.
“I think Roundup Ready alfalfa is the perfect example of why growers should be utilizing social media. There are people out there and Facebook groups that are antibiotechnology. Monsanto does a very good job in social media. But, obviously, farmers are needed to offer their perspectives.”
Social media also offers a business value, she says. “When I asked producers to respond with what direct, bottom-line business value they see in social media, a pork producer and a registered Brown Swiss dairyman said they sold some of their stock because people saw their information on Facebook and Twitter first.”
Using Facebook and Twitter to market hay and other forages appears to be in its infancy. Andrew and Jessica Clarkson, Oakley, IL, celebrated their first Facebook hay sale in February with a mention of the hay on Clarkson Farms’ page.
That was just a month after a relative helped set up their page as a request of Andrew’s father, who had his own Facebook account. People usually use Facebook to tell or show what they’re up to on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Friends and family are invited to view and interact among one another’s pages. Anyone who opts to be “fans” of the Clarkson Farms Facebook page get updates from it.
That’s how the Clarksons’ hay sale was made. Andrew posted that he had hay available for sale and a local fan saw it.
“Next thing I know,” he remembers, “I get a message through Facebook saying, ‘Sign me up for 40 bales, and I need 12 bales of straw when you’re coming.’ ”
At this point, he sells 60-70% of their 3,000-5,000 hay bales per year on their Web site, www.clarksonfarms.com. But he’s hoping to develop a synergy between the site and Facebook page to market more efficiently.
“I’m addicted to Facebook. I’m on it most nights. In the morning, I read about what everybody’s been doing. That’s kind of my newspaper.” Twitter may or may not become a part of his future, he says. “I’m taking it slow.”
Shannon Seifert has been tweeting for about seven months and is learning the value of using the “right” words to draw in consumers of the dairy products she and her husband, Jon, produce at their Sleepy Eye, MN, 125-cow dairy.
“With Twitter, with the right key words you can get lots of different people who are not ag-related,” Seifert says. She retweeted a post entitled “Great recipes for Moms” and connected with a woman from a town 40 miles away.
“In the dairy industry, we always work to connect with consumers, and the main decision-maker in the family regarding food choices usually is a mom.” Using the words “milk” and “butter” are also successes. Key words are designated with “hashtags” – # symbols – in front of the words.
Seifert’s blog – orangepatchdairy.blogspot.com – is a year old. It serves many purposes – as a way to show consumers how they farm, to defend and state her views on media and activists’ attacks on dairy farming and even as a way to provide her family with a historical and pictorial account of their farm and work.
She also makes use of Facebook, started after she left college to stay connected with alumni, and YouTube, a Web site for “aspiring videographers with big dreams and small budgets,” according to its Web site.
“My camera is with me or in my car at all times,” Seifert says. “Whenever I get the magic idea that I might have some time, I record. Last summer I did alfalfa and corn silage chopping. The alfalfa harvesting video has 8,000 views. At first, people in Germany were all over it. Then the Canadians picked up about it. By the time it hit 1,000, it started getting more hits in the U.S.”
In mid-February she videotaped a dairy princess giving a tour of her home dairy. By tweeting and posting on Facebook, she’s able to draw people to the video posted on her blog. Using these intermeshing methods of social media is broadening her audience to consumers, she says.
“Two months ago, a lady from New York City was on my blog. She said, ‘I just have a completely new appreciation for what you do. I feel good about going to the grocery store and buying my milk.’ That just made my day,” Seifert says.
But not all interactions are positive.
“I did post an outright attack on PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) once. It was entitled, “Shame on you, PETA.” I had a bunch of negative comments posted and also privately said to me. That was disheartening. But, at the same time, I used what I learned through the Midwest Dairy Association and Dairy Management Inc. We were taught, ‘You will never change those who have extreme views and values about agriculture. Your target audiences are those who are teachable, in the middle and maybe haven’t decided if they are for or against.’
“So I always try to take the negatives comments with a large grain of salt and say, ‘Okay, I will respond to you in a polite, educational manner that I know what I’m talking about and leave it at that.’ ”
The issue of security is valid for all who post on the Internet. Seifert’s only traditional contact information is the name of the town the farm’s located near. She also doesn’t mention the names of her in-laws, whose herd shares milking facilities.
Phil Reid, Purdue University’s beef distance learning coordinator, is also careful to keep home information and references to travel off anything he posts.
And Reid posts a lot. He’s the driving force behind thebeefblog.com, a daily blog of intro paragraphs and headlines on all matters beef-related that is emailed to people and links them to the original stories on the Internet. He then tweets the blog headlines on Twitter, designating key words so people searching topics can easily find his tweets.
“Twitter is like instant messenger on steroids,” he says. “What’s really boosted our numbers on the blog from the Twitter side is when someone finds one of our articles and likes it and retweets it to all of his friends.” Readers from up to 161 countries access the blog.
Reid also is a prolific videographer of instructional “shortcourses” he posts on YouTube and www.thebeefcenter.com. A popular Purdue video of Extension forage specialist Keith Johnson shows how to use a grazing stick. Other forage-related videos show the use of alternative crops as double crops and how to take a forage sample (see tinyurl.com/Purduevideos).
The past eight years, he’s videotaped a beef producer’s cattle for sale. For three or four years, those videos have been posted on YouTube. “Now a lot of people are doing that,” he says.