Many think of agriculture as being decidedly low-tech. What could be easier than putting seeds in the ground and watching them grow? Similarly, could not anyone feed an animal until it got big enough to become dinner? Having come into agriculture from a decidedly non-agricultural background, I can say that I am almost daily amazed at just how high-tech modern agriculture really is. There's a lot of rigorous science behind the food we eat every day. In fact, we have become so good at raising food that consumers rarely think of what it takes to do so. Those that do think of it, though, often seek out ways to connect directly with farmers and food manufacturers. (Some are so into food that they are called "foodies.")
If you're reading this online, you are more than likely one of the more than 500 million who are active Facebook users or the 200 million who are active on Twitter. You probably also frequently use YouTube for more than just to view the latest viral video. If so, then you probably also know about the potential these tools have for a business that wants to connect to consumers, suppliers, or other businesses. They're called "Social Media" for a good reason. It's all about connections.
This growth in Social Media use has occurred at the same time as a shift in America's food culture. We have seen a steady, rapid growth in purchases from outlets such as farmers' markets, on-farm markets, and CSAs (community supported agriculture operations). Research we are working on at Penn State adds more evidence to the information that an increasing number of people are shopping at these types of outlets. When asked why they do so, one of the most common reasons is that they simply want to connect with the person that great their food. Here again, it's all about the connections.
Since we have a group of consumers and a group of producers who are interested in connecting with each other at an individual basis, it seems obvious that these groups would flock towards social media tools to help facilitate the connections. Videos found on YouTube can add a richness to the farmer's story about how meat, produce, or fiber is produced, processed, and marketed. Posts (called Tweets) on Twitter can keep "followers" apprised of farm events, where products can be purchased, and crop updates. With the ability to add photo links or other content to a tweet, Twitter becomes a great tool for connecting. Finally, Facebook has become the dominant player in today's social media landscape. The ability to share just about anything (blog posts, photos, short status updates (similar to tweets), videos, and much more makes this an ideal way to share information.
Farmers must keep in mind that this is SOCIAL media, however. They can not ignore the need to actively connect with their friends, fans, followers, subscribers, or whatever the word is for people with what they have connected on a given social media tool. The farmers need to make time to ask questions, reply to questions or comments, post content, discuss content that others have posted, and connect in other ways. With a little bit of help, anyone can learn the basics of how each tool works. Regardless, users must keep in mind that the tools are merely avenues for social communication. Therefore, the same basic rules apply to these as to any other communication tool. Most importantly, communication is a proverbial two-way street. Do not annoy others by "talking" all the time or by never "talking." Respond when contacted and put content (text, photos, etc.) out there when appropriate. Communication is not difficult for most people. Social media are simply communication tools that just happen to provide a large potential benefit to farmers.