Agriculture finding its voice on social media

Nov 10, 2011

Eric Durban (Harvest Public Media)

As the local food movement continues to gain steam, many Americans are becoming more and more familiar with their dinner’s origins. But food consumers aren’t just learning about food production at local farmer’s markets, many are getting educated on today's great connector: social media.

A 2011 American Farm Bureau Federation survey found that among the 98 percent of farmers and ranchers aged 18-35 who have access to the Internet, 76 percent of them use social media.

Popular humorous Twitter hashtags like #occupycombine and #manuremonday show that ag producers have embraced social media as a way to easily share information and farm life experiences with the outside world.

The ag community on Twitter is generating so much buzz, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback spoke on social media at the Governor’s Economic Summit on Animal Agriculture in September in Garden City. His was more a word of warning than a glowing review of social media's impact.

“It is everywhere and I think you guys all know that,” Brownback said. “That’s one of those things that’s a new reality -- anyone can post anything.”

The summit featured a breakout discussion that asked the question, “What does Kansas need to do in order to not be targeted or impacted greatly by animal rights advocates?”

One of the points of the session was that almost anyone can be a reporter, thanks to social media. The general feeling was that the ag community needs to tell a positive story and that it can’t let others tell its story for it.

“Others” is probably the key word there. Earlier this year, Harvest reporter Kathleen Masterson tracked an Iowa bill that attempted to make secretly taking photos or videos of farm animals a felony. The bill was never voted on, but the issue generated a lot of discussion regarding animal rights activists gaining employment at livestock facilities.

“They only need one instance and the thing goes viral,” Brownback said of animal rights groups.

Despite the success of wildly popular YouTube videos like “David After Dentist,” going viral isn’t always good. The same system that gives farmers and ranchers a voice also gives farm critics a platform. A popular agriculture discussion on Twitter, #agchat, has participants from four continents, according to its website. Twitter allows anyone to reach all of them instantaneously – with any kind of message.

Brownback said he has a rule that he employs in his office.

“Everything that we do has to be able to be on the front page of the New York Times, because there are significant detractors that are out here,” Brownback told the crowd. That includes posts on Facebook and Twitter.

Brownback said he hasn’t seen a lot of animal activist work in Kansas, but is always watching to see if issues in other states will migrate to the Sunflower State.

As the state looks to expand its animal agriculture, the last thing farmers and ranchers want are detractors. And scrutiny may be just 140 characters away.