An old chestnut raised at farmer meetings is the issue of farming’s relationship with the public, and it came up again recently.
The usual form is that someone stands up and declares that the general public, or an expression that I am sure women must just adore, the “housewife”, know nothing about where food comes from any more. The consensus is usually that the public just don’t get it and that “Something Must Be Done”.
I usually nod sagely, but I only half agree. The answers don’t fully lie with the public finding out more about farming, it is the other way around. We need to get better at communicating in different ways. While more enlightened technological souls than I probably realised this some time ago, my recent experience of the social networking website Twitter has proved to me that this is a good place to start.
For the uninitiated, Twitter is quite simply revolutionising how people are spreading messages about what they do. For those people who don’t know, Twitter lets you write short messages about anything you want in less than 140 characters. If you don’t know what 140 characters looks like, just re-read that last sentence. That’s it.
This is a powerful medium. Twitter, and other social networking sites like Facebook, with its 500m users, are fast becoming the way in which opinions are formed. Who would have thought that a revolution across the Middle East, with dictators falling like dominos, started via a Facebook page and some messages on Twitter? And, back to farming, who would have thought that plans for a new dairy in Lincolnshire could have spawned such a huge campaign?
The furore about large-scale dairying has been a case in point. Led by single-issue pressure groups against large-scale dairying – otherwise known in their hysterical and charged descriptions as “factory farming”, “battery cows” and “mega dairies” – the campaign has been incredible.
If I needed any more persuading of the power of Twitter I didn’t have far to look. Last week, national treasure and thoroughly nice chap Stephen Fry, “tweeted” to his 2.2m adoring friends and followers all about a video produced by a pressure group against “factory milk from battery cows”.
So what to do then? I think social networking holds the key to where the industry will have to go next in connecting with the public. This is a job for everyone, and tired excuses from some quarters about farmers not using modern communications is wearing a bit thin. The farming industry is fantastic in its uptake of new technologies – no one would deny that. I see no reason why technology that allows farmers to connect directly with their consumers should be any different. It should be more important.
This is increasingly about defending our industry, and telling our story in more definite terms. The well-known challenges facing farming in the future and the pressure on farmers to come up with the goods have the potential to showcase how dynamic and worthwhile our industry is. Reactions to these challenges also have the potential to swing the other way in an unstoppable campaign of negativity.
The decisions facing farmers and consumers in the future are sure to be divisive and will polarise opinion. We all have a job to do as individuals in defending this industry, and we need to get it on with it now. So get tweeting about what you do, and let’s re-balance these debates. It is easy to do on a mobile phone and you never know, you might just enjoy it too.
Adam Bedford completed an MSc in Rural Development at Newcastle University and now works for the NFU as a policy adviser.