Rural isolation is a thing of the past, says Madeleine Lewis, as social media opens new 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-centurydairy personwould: 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 10,000people fromten 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 its 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. Grooby belongs to a pea vining group that harvests about 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 [for '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 via social media people aren't horrified by what we do – it's shown me that there's no need for secrecy."
'SM' 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, 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 (President of the National Farmers Union), Peter Unwin (Acting Permanent Secretary, Defra) and Richard Benyon (Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries) every day. I don't need Farmers Weekly or a national newspaper to speak to people. 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. Caroline Stocks is Deputy News Editor for Farmers Weekly, the biggest magazine in the industry. She recently travelled to several different continents on a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, to explore new media, journalism and farming.
She found farmers everywhere had something in common: "Regardless of where farmers are in the world, they're all very similar and face similar issues and struggles – from retailer power and securing contracts, to managing water supplies, debating conventional, GM and organic systems and improving yields. And to achieve their goals they all need clear and up-to-date information."
Social media has changed the way she approaches her journalism. "Many of the stories I write now come from links and contacts I have found on Twitter", she acknowledges. "It also means I now take more of an international approach to my news, writing as I know farmers from across the world are reading my articles. I've met farmers in India who don't have computers but use message boards via their mobiles."
So is social media just a fad? For 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 offounding the AgChat Foundation withahandful offarmers passionate about social media. The non-profit 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 toadvance their SM skills at this application only conference. They have plans for more of the same, along with outreach to the non-ag public..
But Payn-Knoper 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."
At Farming Futures we started to use social media about a year ago to do just that, creating a hub for useful information, news and views about climate change and farming from people across the agricultural sector. We run a user-generated blog, reach out to communities on Twitter to do research and share ideas, and make use of other tools and platforms such as Audioboo and Slideshare to share our information in more accessible and interesting ways. Social media can't take the place of face-to-face communication, so we still run very popular on-farm workshops – but it's a great way of getting people along.
Madeleine Lewis is Creative Communications Manager at Forum for the Future. A former radio and online broadcast journalist and producer at the BBC, she co-manages Farming Futures.
This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition, Tomorrow's Food, Tomorrow's Farms.
Image credits: Fertnig / istock