Blogging on the range: Farmers embrace social media tools
Jan./Feb. 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Ching Lee and Kathy Coatney
Farmers and ranchers use online tools to bridge the gap between them and their consumers.
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 about agriculture—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 their 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.
American Farm Bureau 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 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 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 dairy producer.
Jeff Fowle, a Siskiyou County cattle rancher, relies on social media to share news and ideas with other farmers and ranchers, but notes that social media sites 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 past 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.
Using social media was “all new” to Kings County dairy farmer Barbara Martin. She started slowly with Facebook, which she said her college-aged kids thought was embarrassing at first.
But then she started writing her blog last 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 an encounter with a fellow dairywoman whose husband had committed suicide because the dairy business “just got so hard.” Moved by her story, 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.”
California Country has established sites on Facebook and Twitter.
Here's where to read about the farmers and ranchers profiled in our story
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.