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Facebook On The Farm — Fall 2010 | Out Here Magazine

Use social media to connect with customers, other growers

By Noble Sprayberry

A holiday blizzard blew across Mark McHargue's 1,100-acre Nebraska spread, dumping snow, killing the electricity to his hog barns, and nudging him to recount the hardworking reality of farm life to his followers on Twitter.

"During Christmas, we were working day and night to keep the animals alive," he says. "I got a good response on Twitter because people don't realize what it takes to provide that ham they were eating for the holiday meal."

McHargue works the family-owned farm near Central City, Neb., with his brother, Paul. Social media such as Twitter (follow him at hogs_r_us) and Facebook are tools to reconnect average Americans to those who supply the nation's food, he says.

Ties to agriculture are weakening, with fewer working farmers and fewer people who know farmers, says Dennis Kahl, an educator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. "In the future, our decision makers may not have as big of a connection to agriculture," he says.

Building those connections with social media, though, will take time. "It's like anything new," says Kahl, who runs farm-focused social media seminars. "There are people who jump right on the bandwagon and there are others who are going to wait until it's more proven."

Facebook touts more than 400 million users who write and post updates about their lives, add photos, and search for old friends. On Twitter, posts called tweets are limited to 140 characters of text.

Both services have practical uses for agriculture, such as giving tuned-in farmers fast access to essential extension service updates, Kahl says. "You used to have to wait a week to get it out in the local newspaper or to get it on the radio," he says. "Now, it goes out on Twitter … or people follow it on Facebook."

Farmers who sell at farmers' markets or at their own farmstands can easily connect with their customers via social media. ColdWater Creek Farms in Concord, N.C., routinely posts on Facebook which farmers' markets it will be selling at, and what produce is available. Nearly 400 Facebook connections called "friends" — and potential customers — can see from that posting if they want to buy produce that week.

LinkedIn, a business-oriented social networking site, allows members to build a contact network of direct connections, and those contacts' connections. Indeed, the networking once made by businessmen on the golf course or at private clubs can now be accomplished by anyone online, allowing them to get an introduction through a mutual contact.

Farmers can go even further by creating online blogs to communicate with potential customers or other farmers, or by participating in online forums relative to their product. Online outlets such as YouTube, where anyone can post videos, and Flickr, where photos are posted, offer a far reach for farmers to market.

Social media can help break the solitude that comes with farming. "All farmers love harvest, but it can become a little isolating," says Cheryl Stubbendieck, vice president of public relations for the Nebraska Farm Bureau, which is a leading advocate of social media for farmers. "I know one farmer who has auto-steer on his tractor, so he uses that (time) to connect with not only other farmers but also consumers."

Creating new habits is the key, Kahl says. A farmer or a spouse who spends a few minutes in the morning and again at night to describe farm life's day-to-day success and trials gives new insight to consumers who may never visit a farm.

More than 300 people follow McHargue's updates on Twitter. "If we don't tell our story," he says, "we'll have problems in the future."

Noble Sprayberry is a frequent contributor to Out Here.