By Diane Becker
With less than 2% of the U.S. population involved in production agriculture, today's consumers are more removed from farms and ranches than ever. Consumers have questions about where their food comes from. And producers are often willing to communicate openly about production practices, but may not always be well-versed in addressing consumer concerns via social media. What are some challenges and opportunities those involved in agriculture can communicate with consumers through social media, including reaching different demographics of consumers?
It was the first big news I didn't hear on the radio, read in the newspaper or see on the 10 p.m. news. In 1997 I learned of the death of Princess Diana in a breaking news email from a news network. Since then, I've picked all sorts of knowledge — some true and some not so much — from the Internet. Even though my kids are told not to trust what they read on a web page, it's become the party line of our current society. As farmers, we can't ignore it.
Using online communication, referred to as "social media," is a skill anyone who is interested in agriculture should hone. Scoff at your kids who can't tear their eyes from their Snapchat screen all you want. They are making connections with people — lots of people — whom most of us couldn't connect with when we were young with our clunky cellphones and CB radios. Now they have information at the touch of their fingertips, and it changes their perception of just about everything.
If a person has a question about GMOs, they'll Google it. In those Google results, he or she may get a scientific explanation that tells about the safe, progressive advancement of GMOs. The person may also get a link to someone's blog that gives misinformation and lacks any science-based knowledge.
So what does this all mean to a farmer who just wants to peacefully raise a little corn, soybeans, hogs, cows or milk in his or her corner of Nebraska? A lot. A consumer in the middle of Manhattan, for the first time, can connect with a farmer in the center of America, and that's a good thing. We can blog, respond to negative online articles, and be contributors to the conversation about food that is going on whether we decide to be involved or not.
Where do we start? First of all, be a lurker, which sounds sinister, but just means to hang out on the internet. Set up a Facebook page, add friends and watch to see what people are posting. It's not that eye-opening. In fact, people post some pretty mundane stuff. You'll see lots of first-day-of-school pictures and selfies taken at Husker games. After lurking for a while and getting a feeling of what people are posting and what other people are responding to, it's your turn. Posting pictures on Facebook gives you a good chance to remind people about what you're doing out on the farm. Post a picture from the cab of your tractor as you're feeding your cattle in the dead of winter. Snap a video with your phone of the round baler at work. Most people even in your own community haven't seen how that hay bale is made. They'll love it and may even ask questions about your operation.
Your personal Facebook page may only reach friends, relatives, and people in your community. Once you are comfortable with posting pictures and sharing information about your farming operation, you can move on to other forms of social media. Start by offering to guest-write a blog for your area newspaper. If this is something you really enjoy and can keep contributing to, start your own blog on sites like blogspot.com. Using keywords and descriptive titles, your blog may come up as a link when someone types in "Nebraska soybean farmer."
Your online audience has now expanded beyond your cousins and high school classmates to those who may be from a different state or even country. Your next communication task may be to answer questions from those who read your blog. Be prepared for those who vehemently argue with your lifestyle and opinions. I posted a blog on GMO safety and was harangued by a writer who claimed to be a scientist. I was able to find an article on the subject that was written by this person and found that their radical opinions had already been debunked by others. I responded to his criticism of my blog posting and never heard from him again. It'd be great if a farmer responded to every negative posting out there in the online world. We can't — although we can try.
We also have to be prepared. When you tweet a picture of a new baby calf, you may get a tweet response from PETA. How will you respond? Hopefully, with respect and facts based on science and your experience.
Putting yourself out there on Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram or Facebook is a risk, but so is speaking up at a school potluck when a person is bashing agricultural practices. With social media, we have the opportunity to show how American farmers are producing safe, bountiful food for the world. Let's do it.
Becker is a LEAD 27 fellow. She has served as communications director for the City of Norfolk, and is a contributor to Common Ground Nebraska, Norfolk Daily News and Nebraska Farmer. She and her husband, Tom, own and operate a farm near Madison, Neb.