This Week’s Column: Social Media and Agriculture

Social media is sweeping the nation’s agricultural community. I say community, because it has often been accurately observed that agriculture is a fairly tight-knit sector of our populace for a number of reasons. Ranging from a shared work ethic to an understanding of common challenges, concerns, and opportunities, farm and rural families have things in common that are definitively unique about their geography and occupational lifestyle. The ever-spreading discovery of web-based tools like Facebook and Twitter seem to be resonating in this particularly interconnected universe.



The emergence of agricultural communications expanding and thriving via these social media outlets has fostered a fascinating series of conversations, due in part to the new and growing challenges to food production in this country. Spawned and spurred by anti-meat eating activists and anti-conventional agriculture forces, farmers and agribusiness professionals are increasingly engaging in dialogue and debate online.



While farmers’ using the internet and technology to communicate is nothing new, the social media trend is taking the conversation to a higher level. Farmers were among the first mass adopters of cell phones, way back when the average Motorola handset looked like a backpack Army walkie-talkie from Saving Private Ryan. Farmers have long used the web to receive market data and share pictures and educational material relative to agronomic issues in the field. Social media has now allowed the farm community to further conversation between producers and consumers, perhaps the greatest need and greatest challenge to the farm family today.



The activist enemies of agriculture have a considerable advantage. They are monolithic. When a group like HSUS (Humane Society of the United States, not to be confused with your local Humane shelter or animal rescue) speaks out against animal agriculture, it does so with a single voice. When agriculture responds, dozens of farm groups with tens of thousands of farmer members have an opinion and a voice of their own. When the radicals who want to end your right to eat meat, eggs, and milk threaten farm families with senseless regulation and wild-eyed ballot initiatives designed to end meat production, they do so with the discipline of having a single mission: to drive a extremist vegan agenda. When farmers respond, they respond from the paradigm of their own experiences and opinions.



The battle for America’s most essential industry is David versus Goliath in the most extreme sense. The activist community speaks with a single booming voice, echoed by a complicit mainstream media and backed by wealthy ne’er-do-wells who are duped into thinking their donations support helpless puppies and kittens. Farmers, on the other hand, have spent the past half-century focused on advocating legislation and policy directly related to production of corn, beans, wheat, cotton, cattle, and hogs, and had little desire or reason to speak directly to consumers on their own terms. As a sophisticated political lobbying organization, HSUS does nothing but speak to consumers in way designed to separate them from their hard-earned money.



Social media, perhaps, is helping level the playing field. Farmers will never earn the media spotlight they deserve for producing a safe, abundant, and affordable food supply. The old adage in the newspaper business, “if it bleeds, it leads,” is magnified by the 24-hour news cycle of cable television and the worldwide web. HSUS, however, gains national media exposure by planting “undercover” cameras in a meat processing facility and capturing footage of workers handling cattle inappropriately. Farmers take the blame, and bear the brunt of the ensuing consumer outrage.



By engaging both their critics and customers via Facebook and Twitter, farmers are able to forge relationships with consumers and opinion-leaders 24/7, giving them a more stable foothold when radical enemies assault the farm family in the mainstream press and in the halls of power in state capitals and the Congress of the United States. Farmers are beginning to embrace their responsibility to talk about their business, their lifestyle, and their shared values with consumers.



For years, farmers have understood that the populace is farther and farther removed from agriculture and food production. That understanding always came with a certain amount of frustration, because consumers just “didn’t get it.” Now, the American farmer knows that he has the trust and respect of the consumer, and that he has the added duty of maintaining that trust through transparency and open communication. Social media isn’t the mythical silver bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction.



Follow Andy online via Twitter