“AgChat [is] a moderated Twitter discussion that takes place every Tuesday night. Since its creation in 2009, nearly 10,000 people from ten countries have attached the hashtag #agchat to their tweets, or joined in to discuss issues and share ideas related to food and farming.
Phil Gorringe—aka ‘FarmrPhil‘ on Twitter—runs a mixed farm in Herefordshire, England. It’s the most sparsely populated county in England, with the fourth lowest population density. For people living and working there permanently, especially farmers working out in the fields most of the day, often alone, that can be isolating. Gorringe believes social media is a great way to tackle that isolation. As he puts it: “Social media gives a mental advantage when farming isn’t going so well. In the last few years we’ve been dealing with lower prices for our products, difficult weather conditions, and bovine TB. It can be a lonely place. Through social media I can share my problems and realize that others out there have problems too. It makes you feel better.”
But farmers are not just reaching out to each other for support. Social media is also a powerful way of talking directly with consumers … Phil Grooby, of Bishops Farm Partners of Lincolnshire, England, started using Twitter to show consumers what it takes to get peas from the field to the table. Grooby belongs to a pea vining group that harvests about 900 acres each year. He finds social media “a useful tool when it comes to setting the record straight and showing people how farmers care for the countryside.” ‘FarmrPhil’ agrees. “Twitter is the perfect medium for farmers to engage in differential marketing in a world of commodities.” Offline, he confides: “We don’t do horrendous things as farmers, but we’ve been brought up to be terrified of the outside world seeing in. It’s been a pleasant surprise that when we tell our story via social media people aren’t horrified by what we do—it’s shown me that there’s no need for secrecy.”
Social media also offers farmers the opportunity to engage directly with policy makers. “It gives us a level playing field that we’ve never had access to before,” says Phil. “Recently a senior conservation spokesperson wrote on his blog that he didn’t trust farmers to carry out the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (an industry initiative to improve biodiversity and resource protection on farms). I challenged him on it and he apologised and changed his blog.”
So is social media just a fad? For Payn-Knoper, the answer is unequivocally ‘no.’ She says it has been a “cultural shift” to connect farmers and help them get the word out about food production. That’s why last year she was part of founding the AgChat Foundation with a handful of farmers passionate about social media. The nonprofit aims to empower a connected community of ‘agvocates,’ by training farmers to use social media. In August 2010, it organized Agvocacy 2.0, gathering 50 people from the agricultural industry to advance their social media skills at this application-only conference. They have plans for more of the same, along with outreach to the non-ag public. But Payn-Knoper also believes there is a challenge ahead: “The next big thing for social media and farming is a way for information to be more effectively managed through social hubs. Many people are just at the point of information overload.”
At Farming Futures we started to use social media about a year ago to do just that, creating a hub for useful information, news and views about climate change and farming from people across the agricultural sector. We run a user-generated blog, reach out to communities on Twitter to do research and share ideas, and make use of other tools and platforms such as Audioboo and Slideshare to share our information in more accessible and interesting ways. Social media can’t take the place of face-to-face communication, so we still run very popular on-farm workshops—but it’s a great way of getting people along.”
[CC image credit: Cross Road–Still Life, ca. 1933-1934, oil on canvas by Paul Benjamin]