Sure, there were discussions about farming methods, policies and regulations, but they were not the focus of this meeting.
The 115 farmers, ranchers and agribusiness professionals in this crowd were focused on addressing some old challenges in a new way. Farmers have always recognized the need to communicate with consumers, but the attendees at this meeting believe that finding similarities, listening, connecting and answering questions from the non-farming public is a long-term approach that will build trust and solutions for a greater collective future.
A New Crop
“It was a different group of people than what you often see at ag meetings,” said Cassie Jo Arend, Farm Bureau member and communications coordinator for Cooper Farms in northwest and west central Ohio. “We were trading Twitter handles instead of business cards and having more discussion online, at times, than in person.”
This new crop of farmers and ranchers is getting serious about social media. It’s changing the way they connect with each other and is increasingly how they are expected to be available to communicate with a curious public.
“Many already knew each other online from Twitter or Facebook, often without actually having met face-to-face before the conference; that speaks to the relationships you can form online and the strength of the ag community,” Arend said.
Tweets, status updates and more were flying to and through Internet-connected laptops, phones and tablet computers during the two-day conference focused on training and empowering agricultural advocates (agvocates) to tell the story of agriculture in ways that resonate with today’s consumers.
“I was able to interact with others during the meetings both in person and through social media,” said eighth-generation South Charleston farmer Sam Wildman, whose father, Charles, attended last year’s conference in Chicago.
“It was a much more laid back, informal conference with several small group settings that allowed me to gain much more information and answers to questions.”
Going Beyond the Choir
Most conference sessions focused on enhancing skills in areas such as blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more, as well as how to handle real-time conversations and build effective online communities. But the overarching theme was to use these tools to strategically go “beyond the choir” by connecting with consumers not familiar agriculture.
“We are in a unique position to build connections with consumers who often feel more connected with and have a better understanding of agriculture when they can follow along with us on the farm,” Wildman said. “Social media allows us to take it to them.”
Special presentations included research from the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to help develop more effective conversations, particularly when it comes to vocabulary and tone, and a panel of mommy bloggers who shared what influences their food purchasing decisions and where they receive their information on food. For many, they go online.
“This creates an opportunity for farmers and ranchers of all sizes and types to join in the conversation,” said Jennifer Keller, director of marketing and education with the Ohio Pork Producers Council, adding that the conference was a reminder that farmers need to share the little things that happen on a farm that they may take for granted while also realizing they need to speak the language of their non-farming neighbors.
“While this takes time and effort from those involved in agriculture, it is critical to future success of our family farms,” she said. “We must earn and maintain the trust and confidence of the food consuming public as part of our business plans.”
Photo by Chuck Zimmerman