Flashback to the 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., which opened with an eerie melody as a camera panned the aisles of a grocery store. Then came the ominous tagline: “The industry doesn’t want you to know how your food is produced. Because if you knew, you might not want to eat it.”
Contrast that to the slightly fuzzy cell phone video of Ohio farmer Cy Prettyman standing in a snow-covered field earlier this year. The intermittent whoosh of a vehicle can be heard on a nearby road and geese squawk somewhere out of the frame.
“We’re going to show and tell you about the activities that a farmer does on a day-to-day basis,” he said, later adding, “We welcome your questions and your comments.”
A farmer documentary
The video kicked off Follow Farming, a seven-month project led by local farmers to document how crops are commonly produced on an Ohio farm.
“I don’t think farmers are concerned that they have anything to hide,” said Prettyman, one of several volunteers with the Marion County Farm Bureau who came up with the idea for the project.
However, farmers have been concerned about the confrontational and often exaggerated rhetoric surrounding issues related to food production. Caught up in speculation about the influence of multinational corporations and the realities of consumer demand, farmers have set out to dispel what they feel are misperceptions about their daily work.
While Follow Farming lacks Hollywood hype—“We’re amateurs,” Prettyman acknowledged—it does address real food production issues, such as why a farmer may or may not choose to plant genetically modified seeds.
“Most any farmer in a one-on-one conversation is very glad to share what they do. They’re very passionate,” Prettyman said.
The farmers are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a blog to provide text, photo and video updates of each step in the process of growing soybeans, Ohio’s largest crop (their plans to also plant corn were washed away by persistent rains that kept them out of the field during planting season).
The group partnered with Morral Companies, a local agricultural supply company, which donated 10 acres of land and the supplies for the demonstration.
At first, Prettyman was skeptical about using social media for the project, but after attending a training session, he felt there was value in it.
“We feel like it gives us an opportunity to connect with the consumer in a way that we haven’t in the past,” he said.
A growing number of farmers have welcomed social media as a way to share information in spite of their geographic separation. Last year, a group of farmers founded the AgChat Foundation with the goal of “empowering farmers to connect communities” through social media. Some commodity traders even began following farmers on Twitter to get the inside track on crop conditions.
Smart phones have made it possible for farmers to send pictures and post updates directly from the tractor seat or inside their barns.
“Farmers have a growing confidence in using social media to share what they do,” said Dan Toland, an Ohio Farm Bureau communications specialist who has helped Ohio farmers use new media tools. “We look for this to be just the beginning of a new way for farmers to demonstrate to consumers how their food is produced.”
As for the 10-acre plot in Marion County, Prettyman hopes that people not only follow the project online, but also have a chance to get an up close look during events the group is contemplating.
“We want people to be able to touch the crop, feel it and see it firsthand,” Prettyman said.
All the proceeds from the fall’s harvest will be donated to local charities.
Prettyman said he hopes people will learn about all that goes into food production and come away feeling that farmers respect their concerns.
“We do want to provide them with what they want from a quality standpoint and from a safety standpoint,” he said.
You can also connect with food and farming in southwestern Ohio by reading the Butler County farmer diaries.
Watch recent videos from Follow Farming’s YouTube channel.