Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Telling the agriculture story in the social media age

Keeping Up

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn.

Chances are you've at least heard of these terms. They are all part of the rapidly growing social media network - the set of free online tools that allow the building of relationships between individuals sharing interests, information and ideas.

But why should farmers and ranchers care? Why should producers take the time to log on to social media? It's pretty simple: social networking sites offer the opportunity to reach millions of people with just a few clicks. These are tools that aren't just for teenagers or the tech savvy anymore. Social media has become mainstream - a place where the agriculture voice is not always heard.

"Social media offers us the ability to reach the 99 percent of the population that isn't in production agriculture," said Debbie Borg, chairman of the Nebraska Soybean Association who farms with her family near Allen, Neb. "When people understand why we do what we do, they are okay with it. But if they don't know, then all they hear is the other side."

Borg joined Twitter in March 2009 (user name @iamafarmer2) she's on Facebook and has a blog ( She Tweets about the daily happenings on the farm to followers from around the country.

"The consumer is so removed from the farmer that there is a growing awareness of wanting to know more about their food," Borg said. "It's become very obvious that we in agriculture must start talking with those outside our neighborhoods. Social media is a great way to reach more people with things we do on the farm everyday. If I can educate just one person a day, that's one more person who knows the truth."

It might start with educating just one person, but the numbers and breadth of social media are impressive and still growing.

Facebook, the popular social networking Web site, allows friends, classmates, colleagues and others to connect and share photos, messages and information about their lives with people in their network. It has more than 350 million users, and if it were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world, according to Nielsen Co.

The newcomer in social networks, Twitter, is a cross between text messaging and blogging, where users are prompted to answer the question, "What are you doing?" in 140 characters or less. The site has grown 200 percent in the past year and estimates more than 26 million users in 2010.

Video sharing Web site YouTube is now the second largest search engine in the world and uploads 13 hours of video every minute of every day.

All of these networks and others can be linked together and even carried with you on your iPhone, BlackBerry or Driod to keep you constantly connected and updated.

"Social media allows us the opportunity to tell our story from the comfort of our own operations instead of having to leave our businesses and travel to speak to the public," said Lincolnville, Kan., rancher, Kim Harms. "In essence, social media outlets allow us to invite the public into our lives, homes, families and businesses to see the truth - not just hear others opinions."

The Kansas Beef Council approached Kim and her husband Mark and asked if they would maintain a blog as a way to give a face to animal agriculture in the Kansas.

"It's our way to allow others to see how much the same we are in our family life, yet different in the challenges we face making a living in this industry," Harms said. "I hope, from reading our blog, others will see how dedicated farmers and ranchers are to their livestock and this way of life. We believed it was important to invite the world into the inner workings of a real ranch so they can see for themselves that we are caring, dedicated professionals with a passion for what we do and a love for our families, the land and animals."

Mark and Kim own and operate Harms Plainview Ranch along with their three children. They raise Angus, Red Angus and Charolais on their ranch that is headquartered on Kim's family's 120-year-old homestead. Their ranch family blog ( features photos and stories about the day-to-day joys and challenges of a family ranch.

"The blog has been a way for me to communicate that I am a wife and mother who puts food on the table for not only my own family, but also for the family of consumers everywhere," Harms said. "It's important for us to embrace these outlets as a way to help others see how dedicated we are to the well-being of the animals put in our care and committed to bringing a safe, nutritious product to our customers. Farmers and ranchers are a generally quiet, independent group who look at media as a necessary evil. Because of this, they, and what they do, are often misunderstood by the general public."

Social media now allows the farm community to further conversation between producers and consumers, perhaps the greatest need and greatest challenge to the farm family today. However, what isn't said by agriculture on social media will be said by others.

Groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have been using social media tactics in full force to directly sway consumer opinion and gain support. Videos on the HSUS YouTube channel have been viewed more than 3 million times and PETA has more than 370,000 fans on Facebook, but that's just the short list of their social media campaign efforts and accomplishments.

"We need to talk to those who don't agree with what we do, and give them reasons for why we do it," Borg said. "The things that are so basic to those of us in agriculture are foreign to many people. If you Google search the word 'farm' you'll come up with results about factory farms and animal rights and there is nothing good said about it. That's because agriculture isn't there."

One of the greatest values of Twitter and other social media may not be as obvious - listening, Borg said. "Just by listening to what is being said, it gives us a better grasp of how we're perceived and we can reply. We don't have to tell them all the science. We just have to tell them what we do and that we care about our livestock. If you could commit just 10-15 minutes a day to telling your story, that would be a great start."

Borg has recently started conducting social media training sessions for farmers. She leads participants through the process of starting a Twitter account and discusses the value of tweeting and blogging from the farm.

"It's a tool that we need to be using," she said. "Some people call it a fad, but I really think it's here to stay. Right now, it's the best tool we have to reach outside our box to tell our story and the best thing about it is it costs nothing."

For the Harms family, exploring social media has been a worthwhile learning experience.

"When the Kansas Beef Council approached me, I had barely even heard the word "blog." I certainly had no idea how to start one, let alone how to maintain it or add pictures to one. I now see it as a powerful tool for our industry to spread the facts of what we do. It allows me to stay close to home so I can help on our operation, yet reach literally millions of people - some of whom have never even seen pictures of a real working ranch, let alone visited one. It allows me to invite them in to our everyday world to see that ranching is not just our way of making a living, but our way of living life."

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