Farmers are growing to love social media. It can tackle rural isolation, get you closer to your customers, give you a direct line to politicians and policy-makers and help tell the true story of farming. In the first part of our social media special, Madeleine Lewis explores how blogs, Twitter and Facebook are opening windows of opportunity for farmers around the world.


She grew up on a dairy farm, bought her first calf when she was seven, and her husband’s a dairy nutritionist. So when Michele Payn-Knoper was stumped by her Holstein dairy calf not weaning, she did what any self-respecting 21st-century dairy person would: she went onto Twitter to get some advice.

Within 20 minutes she had six ideas. One of them (to put grain directly into the milk) solved the problem and, one year on, her calf has just been bred – a social media success story.

Michele is the founder of AgChat, a moderated Twitter discussion that takes place every Tuesday night. Since its creation in 2009, nearly 10,000 people from 10 countries have attached the hashtag #agchat to their tweets, or joined in to discuss issues and share ideas around food and farming.

It’s a long way from the perception that Twitter is “just about what people are having for lunch”, and, with use of the platform growing at over 1,000% a year, it doesn’t seem to be going away. The majority of farmers (56%) are now using the internet, according to the National Farm Research Unit’s 2010 survey.

Phil Gorringe – aka “FarmrPhil” on Twitter – runs a mixed farm in Herefordshire. It’s the most sparsely populated county in England, with the fourth lowest population density. For people living and working there permanently, especially farmers working out in the fields most of the day – often alone – that can be isolating.

Phil believes social media is a great way to tackle that isolation. Once he’s taken off his wellies and had his dinner, he settles down in front of the telly with his laptop to hand. He’s got one eye on the Twitter conversations developing, and one eye on the TV. Evenings are a good time for him, with both his UK and US friends and followers online.

As he puts it: “Social media gives a mental advantage when farming isn’t going so well. In the last few years we’ve been dealing with lower prices for our products, difficult weather conditions and bovine TB. It can be a lonely place. Through social media I can share my problems and realise that others out there have problems too. It makes you feel better.”

He’s not the only one. Alabama dairy farmer Will Gilmer tweeted his day’s work (“209 milked, three bred”) and heard straight back from Ryan Bright in East Tennessee: “All 100 milked and two bred before breakfast”. “Farmerbright” then tweeted that his newly-repaired silo auger (an apparatus to shift grain) is still holding together, and got an offer of a new one for sale.

But farmers are not just reaching out to each other for support. Social media is also a powerful way of talking directly with consumers. For Phil and his wife Heather – aka “Wiggled” – social media has also helped to get an important second income stream off the ground. Heather runs Wiggly Wigglers, a natural gardening mail order business and online information source for everything from composting to water management. Her active engagement with the grow-your-own community on Twitter has proved a great way to boost sales.

Heather describes social media as “word of mouth on speed” and says it allows her rural business to compete with those with bigger advertising budgets or which have more footfall. She started with the Wiggly podcasts and has built her Twitter following to over 3,000. Now she reaps the rewards. When she puts up a Wiggly offer on her Facebook page, she’ll get 30-40 orders within an hour and a half, and 7% of her website visits are driven from Twitter. It’s a very cost-effective form of advertising.

She’s not alone. Phil Grooby, of Bishops Farm Partners, Lincolnshire, started using Twitter to show consumers what it takes to get peas from the field to the table. Phil belongs to a pea vining group that harvests about 364ha (900 acres) each year. He finds social media “a useful tool when it comes to setting the record straight and showing people how farmers care for the countryside”.

“FarmrPhil” agrees. “Twitter is the perfect medium for farmers to engage in differential marketing in a world of commodities,” he explained in a tweet to over 1,000 followers, adding in another that “SM [social media] encourages transparency … increases consumer confidence and promotes choice”.

Offline, he confides: “We don’t do horrendous things as farmers, but we’ve been brought up to be terrified of the outside world seeing in. It’s been a pleasant surprise that when we tell our story through social media, people aren’t horrified by what we do – it’s shown me that there’s no need for secrecy.”

Social media also offers farmers the opportunity to engage directly with policy makers. “It gives us a level playing field that we’ve never had access to before,” says Phil. “Recently a senior conservation spokesperson wrote on his blog that he didn’t trust farmers to carry out the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (an industry initiative to improve biodiversity and resource protection on farms). I challenged him on it and he apologised and changed his blog.”

On the other side of the fence, policy makers are finding social media a valuable shortcut to stakeholder engagement. Mark Avery, ex-conservation director of the RSPB, tweets, uses Facebook and has his own blog that senior people in industry and government read. As he puts it, “It’s like having a five-minute chat with the likes of Peter Kendall, Peter Unwin and Richard Benyon every day. And I have conversations direct with farmers too – when I used the term ‘intensive farming’ on my blog several farmers wrote to me to challenge my use of it.”

The media has been fast to pick up on the trend too. Farmers Weekly’s own deputy news editor, Caroline Stocks, says social media has changed the way she approaches her work. “Many of the stories I write now come from links and contacts I have found on Twitter”, she says. “It also means I now take more of an international approach to my writing, as I know farmers from across the world are reading my articles.”

So is social media just a fad? For Michele Payn-Knoper, the answer is unequivocally “no”. She says it has been a “cultural shift” to connect farmers and help them get the word out about food production. That’s why last year she was part of founding the AgChat Foundation with a handful of farmers passionate about social media.

The non-profit organisation aims to empower a connected community of “agvocates”, by training farmers to use social media. In August 2010, it organised Agvocacy 2.0, gathering 50 people from the agricultural industry to advance their social media skills. They have plans for more of the same, along with outreach to the non-ag public.

But Michele also believes there is a challenge ahead: “The next big thing for social media and farming is a way for information to be more effectively managed through social hubs. Many people are just at the point of information overload.”

This article first appeared in a special edition of Green Futures magazine. Green Futures is the leading magazine on environmental solutions and sustainable futures, published by Forum for the Future.


Social media jargon buster

New to the subject of social media? Here are some key terms explained:

Blog

Short for “web log”, this is simply a type of website. A series of entries are posted to a single page by an individual or group of bloggers, usually in reverse-chronological order. Blogs have a wide range of uses – they can be a platform to share interesting links or pictures, a space for personal musings or updates, or a way of sharing professional commentary, analysis or business information.

Blog post/entry

Content published on a blog, which could include text, pictures, videos and links to other websites.

Facebook

A social networking website that allows users to create and customise their own profiles with photos, videos, links and information about themselves. Friends can browse the profiles of other friends and write messages on their “walls”. Businesses can also have a profile on the site, allowing them to communicate with customers and promote themselves across the world.

Flickr

Flickr is an image and video hosting website and online community, where users upload personal photographs.

Follower

Someone who opts to subscribe to your updates on Twitter.

Foursquare

A location-based application that pinpoints where you are using your phone’s GPS. Users can “check in” to various locations, enabling friends in their network to see their whereabouts and activities. Users can also gain incentives like badges or deals by checking into certain locations. For example, if a user visited a farm shop on a Sunday afternoon they could “check in” and maybe get a free tasting or discount.

Hashtag

A way of grouping messages on Twitter that relate to the same topic or event. Prefixing a specified word or phrase with a hash symbol and including it in a tweet allows users to search or follow all updates related to that subject. For example, Farmers Weekly journalists at the recent Cereals Event added #cereals to all of their tweets.

Like

A quick way of giving positive feedback to something that has been posted on Facebook. Clicking the “like” button lets people know you care about what they have posted.

LinkedIn

A social networking website geared towards companies and industry professionals. Like Facebook, members can create customised profiles, but they tend to detail employment history, business accomplishments and other professional accolades. It’s primarily used to make new business contacts or keep in touch with previous colleagues and clients.

Twitter

An instant messaging system that lets users send brief messages (see tweets) to a list of followers. Twitter limits each tweet to 140 characters, meaning there’s no room for rambling. It’s a social network for friends and colleagues to update each other on their thoughts and activities throughout the day, but it has also become widely used by businesses, celebrities and politicians to communicate with their customers, voters and fans.

Tweet

A post/entry made on Twitter. There are also “retweets”, which is when you repost something you like written by someone else to your own followers.