February 2010
Featured Articles

Farmers Learning Benefits of Web-Based Social Media

To define social media might be impossible and, with its mass appeal, may not even be necessary. But for those who may have been "living under a rock" for the last five years or so, the website Spry.com does a great job of explaining just what social media really is: "Social Media are primarily Internet and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings. The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio…"

Boy, has it caught on! With sites like Facebook boasting over 300 million users worldwide, social media has become commonplace among most demographics. But one demographic has been a bit more reluctant to climb aboard the social media train.

Social media and farming seem to be as opposite as night and day, but farmers are learning ways social media can serve as a great complement to the work they do each day. So how do these two seemingly opposing topics coincide?

Recently Anne Mims-Adrian, Alabama Cooperative Extension System associate director of information technology, along with professional speaker Michele Payn-Knoper gathered responses on the benefits of using social media in farming, ironically posting the question on Twitter, another social media site allowing users to post short comments and questions. Here are a few of their responses:

Farmers’ social media benefits:

• Sharing information and ideas with other farmers and learning from other farmers, ranchers and associates of agriculture.

• Providing quick, responsive networks and communities for farm use and important emerging issues.

• Marketing farm and ranch products.

• Connecting and interacting with consumers, creating conversations and relationships with them.

• Allowing agriculturists to share positive information.

• Educating people who are not associated with agriculture.

• Widening the scope of local farmers.

"Social media is a great way to connect and learn from others about ideas and practices that can improve farm operations," Mims-Adrian said. "Often farmers connect with people they would have never been able to before. They’re able to educate people outside of ag and support the ag industry using these new online tools."

According to Mims-Adrian, using blogs or online journals, farmers are able to overcome the negative image they’re sometimes given by showing consumers the "goodness of rural life." They’re also able to show how they make an honest living farming and highlight some of the struggles they face allowing an often-unaware public to more easily relate with them.

Mims-Adrian also shared that farmers are beginning to use video and picture-posting sites like YouTube, Flikr and Facebook to highlight how their operations are carried out and to even promote products they grow on their farms.

"Other sites like agtalkplus.com and newagtalk.com provide forums where farmers can share their knowledge and experience with other farmers," Mims-Adrian said. "Operation solutions are also shared among farmers and there are plenty of discussions about farming and the agriculture industry."

Mims-Adrian also noted Ag Talk was developed for farmers by farmers and is supported solely by donations.

According to Mims-Adrian’s research, use of social media among farmers reflects that of the general population. Younger farmers are more likely to use sites like YouTube and Facebook as compared to farmers ages 50-plus. She noted lack of time, lack of understanding in using the technology and desire of privacy as some of the barriers preventing farmers from engaging in social media. But if farmers are willing or able to overcome those barriers, she stressed the benefits social media can provide to farmers and their operations.

"There are many benefits to using social media," she said. "Some are: to share ideas and solutions with farmers and others, connect with farmers nationally and all over the world, help consumers understand farming and the agriculture industry, and market farm products."

One Alabama farmer has overcome those barriers and has seen great success in using social media to promote and highlight his farm.

Will Gilmer of Gilmer Dairy shared his experiences with several Alabama farmers at the recent Precision Ag Conference in Atmore. He started his presentation by telling the audience how he realized first-hand the need to inform the public about agriculture. About 10 years ago, he was showing his Holstein heifers at the West Alabama Fair and someone asked him, "Excuse me, are those Dalmatian cows?"

Gilmer realized using social media, he could effectively tell his story to a large number of people. His farm already had a website, gilmerdairyfarm.com, but he began blogging on his site, "The Dairyman’s Blog," once or twice a week in 2007.

Not only did he realize social media was a great way to share his story with the general public, he also realized the importance of taking advantage of Internet venues typically untapped by agriculturalists.

"We’ve begun to see a lot of anti-agriculture groups out there taking advantage of the fact that some of us haven’t been contributing on the Internet, and there’s a lot of anti-agriculture opinion on some of the things we do on many sites.

"Blogging allowed me to update and project what we’re going to do for the day or next few days," he said. "As more people started reading, I started tackling agriculture issues. Those get the most responses on each side of the issue."

Earlier this year, Gilmer set up a Facebook account and he said initially he was hesitant to set up the webpage because he thought "that’s something high school kids do and I don’t have time for that." But what he soon realized was it didn’t take much time and it allowed people to look into the everyday happenings of Gilmer Dairy.

"It really does work well," he said. "I have close to 460 people who can see my Facebook page every day and look at what I’ve done on the farm. It’s been a real benefit for us."

Twitter is another social media tool Gilmer has begun practicing and he said it’s been great for non-farm individuals to learn about his farm.

"Twitter is another site I use and it’s really a neat tool," he said. "It allows you to give short updates, and what’s neat about that is sharing our farm routines…folks who don’t live on a farm eat that stuff up."

Gilmer noted there is a growing number of farmers using Twitter and other ag-related companies and organizations are starting to "Tweet" or post comments on the site, as well.

Then he decided to tackle YouTube, a site that allows users to post videos for others to see.

"I thought ‘Well, what the heck, I’ll try a few things,’ and so I decided to post a video on YouTube," he said. "I figured it was worth making a fool out of myself to try to talk a little more about agriculture. So I posted a few videos and they caught on."

So he started Gilmer Farm’s MooTube Minute on the ever-popular social media site.

His most popular video is one he calls "Water and Poo" named after the Stonewall Jackson song "Waterloo." The video shows Gilmer spreading manure over his pasture and singing about his responsible farming ways to the tune of the 1959 hit. The video has been viewed over 9,000 times and for those interested in checking it out, go to www.youtube.com and type "‘Water ‘n Poo’…a song about nutrient management" in the search box.

"People ask, ‘Why should I use social media?’ and the first answer is: because everybody else is," Gilmer said. "We’ve all heard the statistics; the average American is three generations removed from the farm, and we (farmers) only make up about 1.5 percent of the population. People just don’t understand agriculture anymore. Our values are the same as they’ve always been…and it’s important to get our story out there. Using social media is something we can do to educate others and shape their opinions. There are a lot of groups out there that are directly in opposition to what we’re doing; we need to do what we can to keep public policy on (the farmers) side."

Grace Smith is an associate editor for AFC Cooperative Farming News.