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Published January 18, 2011, 10:46 AM

Ag turns to social media to make its case

Mike Haley — aka Farmer Haley — is at home on a tractor and around cattle.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Mike Haley — aka Farmer Haley — is at home on a tractor and around cattle.

The fifth-generation Ohio farmer is equally comfortable using social media to win friends and influence people who know little or nothing about agriculture.

“We need to spread our message, says Haley, who also is vice president of the Agchat Foundation, a national organization that helps farmers and ranchers use social media.

Haley —“Farmer Haley” is his electronic moniker — is part of a growing movement in U.S. agriculture to utilize social media, or Web-based technologies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. At home, work and play — using a PC, smart phone or other electronic tool— social media allows agriculturalists to connect quickly and often interactively with each other or the broader world.

Some of the push is coming from agricultural groups such as the National Corn Growers Association, which use social media for what the organization calls “rapid and frequent communication.”

But social media also is catching on with individual farmers and ranchers nationwide. Sometimes agriculturalists use social media to stay in touch with, and learn from, one another. More often they utilize social media to pr-

mote agriculture to folks whose only connection to ag is the food they put on their plates.

“What we do is a novelty to the majority of people,” says Michele Payn-Knoper, an Indiana-based consultant and speaker with strong ties to agriculture. She lives on a farm with her family.

Farmers represent roughly 1.5 percent of America’s population, and educating the other 98.5 percent isn’t easy, especially when groups such as PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, present an often-negative portrait of agriculture, Payn-Knoper says.

At the very least, she says, farmers and ranchers need to ratchet up their use of social media to counteract its growing use by PETA and other groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization.

The Humane Society’s website shows that the organization is an active social media player.

“We need to be proactive,” Payn-Knoper says of ag’s use of social media.

Interesting demographics

Social media seems to be an effective tool for reaching people unfamiliar with agriculture.

For instance, about 8 percent of Americans who use the Internet also use Twitter, with young adults, minorities and urban residents most likely to use the latter, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

Significantly, urbanites are twice as likely as rural residents to use Twitter.

The survey also found that 72 percent of Twitter users tweet, or post short messages on Twitter, about their personal lives. That makes Twitter a good way to give urban residents a glimpse into farmers’ everyday life, Haley says.

Agriculture’s message means far more when it comes from farmers instead of farm groups, he says.

“People want to hear it directly from us,” says Haley, who uses Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube. He also has a website for his business, Haley Farms, which produces hay, wheat, corn, soybeans and cattle.

While social media is embraced most readily by young people, older Americans rapidly are turning to it as well, in part to keep in touch with children and grandchildren.

For instance, a 2009 study found that the 18- to 25-year-old age group accounted for 43 percent of Facebook users — but that women 55 and older are the fastest-growing segment measured by percentage. Men 55 and older were becoming Facebook users at only a slighter slower pace.

Nationwide, Facebook is signing up about 1 million new users each week. In comparison, Montana has about 975,000 residents.

‘My agent told me to’

People involved in agriculture are putting social media to many uses.

Kari Lynn Dell, a Montana rancher, rodeo participant and writer, says she got involved because “my agent told me to.”

She writes women’s fiction and hopes that her online journal, “Montana for Real,” will build an audience that one day will want to buy one of her novels.

She has some practical advice on social media for fellow agriculturalists.

“Know your target market,” she says.

She also advises people to “keep it entertaining. Make people want to come and read it,” she says.

That has been a huge part of the appeal of Ree Drummond, a city girl who married a cowboy and is raising four children on an Oklahoma ranch. Her blog, The Pioneer Woman, has gained a huge following. Besides Drummond’s musings, the site contains recipes and her photography. Agribusiness recruiter Jason Lehnst of Coralville, Iowa, uses social media to promote his business, profession and agriculture in general.

Social media is a communications tool that agriculturalists need to utilize, he says.

He says he knows people who don’t always return e-mail or phone messages but who do respond to Facebook messages.

‘15 minutes a day’

Getting started with social media may seem daunting, especially to busy people with limited computer skills.

The reality is, social media isn’t all that complicated, Payn-Knoper says.

“Its not rocket science. Fifteen minutes a day is what I tell people they’ll need to spend on it,” she says.

Some agriculturalists interested in using social media worry about protecting their privacy, but those concerns can be dealt with, she says.

Here are three helpful sites recommended by agriculturalists familiar with social media:

- www.agchatfoundation.org. Seeks to help those “who produce food, fuel, fiber and feed tell agriculture’s story from their point of view.” The AgChat Foundation, besides offering information online, also provides training sessions across the country.

- “Discover Your Social Web” is a practical, let’s-take-it-from-the-top guide to social media from the Ohio Farm Bureau. It’s a nice starting point for folks just getting with social media.

- Cause Matters (www.causematters.com was founded by Payn-Knoper to help people champion their cause. Her website offers various resources for agriculturalists interested in social media.

She predicts social media, already extremely popular, will become even more entwined in everyday life. She points to the World Web Wide, which has become an indispensable, ubiquitous tool for businesses and individuals.

“Social media is where the Web was 15 years ago,” she says.

Haley says even more agriculturalists need to get involved in social media and establish personal connections with nonfarmers.

Too many organizations are portraying agriculture unfairly, and it’s up to farmers and ranchers to set the record straight, he says.

“We’ve got to overcome the negative,” he says.

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