Social media: focus on possibilities that work for farmers

The use of social media can, according to the book 'Future of Farming', be a trigger for farmers worldwide. In the United States, 76 percent of farmers between the ages of 18 and 35 use social media to share knowledge, connect with consumers and promote their business. In some parts of the world, farmers and agribusinesses have been using social media for many years and are quite adept at utilizing it to both grow their businesses and connect with consumers.

Bart IJntema, Senior Vice President of Food and Agriculture Development at Rabobank International: “Having a farming background myself, I have taken a keen interest in the use of social media in the agricultural sector. To me it is not a question of whether social media can be of added value to the sector, but how. Over the years I have seen farmers using apps to make business decisions, write blogs and tweet to share their story with a broader audience. Farmers use online platforms to skip a number of links in the food chain and sell their products directly to end consumers. Social media can definitely be made to work for the sector; we just need to focus on the possibilities that may work for farmers in doing business and engaging with the general public."

Social media and farming are not always the most obvious companions you may think of. Nonetheless, farmers are recognizing the value of social media and how various platforms can be utilized to share information about their businesses and sectors. With over 1 billion Facebook users and 554 million users on Twitter, there is a great opportunity to bridge geographical distances between farmers and their customers, as well as others with whom they would like to share knowledge. Social media provides opportunities for farmers and consumers to connect, positioning farmers as a source of information about the origin of the foods consumers eat.

Closing the gap

In Australia, it is predicted that within a couple of years, 33 percent of the country’s farmers will utilize social media. Little by little, farmers have found their way to the platforms that are meaningful to them. This is due, in part, to the fact that farmers around the world face several challenges that can be partially resolved by using social media. Challenges such as access to finance in developing countries (more on this issue will be discussed in detail in the next social media release), consumer contact, access to knowledge and managing the image of the agricultural sector.

Sam Livingstone, from the virtual farming community AgChatOz in Australia, explains: "Social media can provide a massive benefit to both the farmer and the consumer in so many ways, from knowing that the beef you are buying as a consumer has been raised on grass, to letting consumers know which farmers’ market you are going to be at on the weekend so that they can purchase your produce."

“New ideas are generated when consumers and farmers connect online. Moreover, the online sharing of knowledge in areas where it’s difficult to physically bridge distances is a blessing. It provides farms with easy access to, for example, colleagues and their knowledge, experience and best practices.”

Sharing knowledge

The relevance of knowledge sharing is emphasized by Ricardo Rios, a former computer engineer from Chile. "When I have started my dairy farm, my knowledge as a computer engineer was worthless. After a few years of farming I came to see that we lacked knowledge to become a flourishing company.” Seeking knowledge, Ricardo met a farmer from New Zealand who could help him. With this colleague as a mentor he learned a lot in a short time. “Since we started the coaching process from New Zealand, our company has grown. We are now achieving as much from the production system as the New Zealanders. This season we will milk 4,700 grass-fed cows,” said Ricardo. “If you lack knowledge, you need to find knowledge”.

Engaging with the general public

Social media offers farmers a unique way to educate the general public about what they do, the practices they use and the challenges they face. When used properly, social media is one tool farmers can utilize to join a broader conversation about food production and, in the process, manage the perception of their businesses, and agriculture in general. Michele Payn-Knoper, an agriculture advocate and farmer with the AgChat Foundation in the United States, says: "Social media provides farmers with the opportunity to connect with the 98.5 percent of the U.S. population not on a farm, share best practices amongst peers and provide food buyers with an inside look into today's farms. Personally, I've received calf-feeding ideas, sold a truck and booked speaking engagements through Twitter and Facebook. More than 92 percent of farmers in the United States own a smart phone; it's just a matter of putting those tools to work. Smart social media is smart business for farms."

Bart IJntema: “Rabobank, being a cooperative, acknowledges the added value of joining forces and working together. We feel that the principles and concepts of social media provide us with a way to start doing online what we have been doing offline for over a century already: connecting and cooperating. This is why we started developing a ‘Virtual Farm Club’ concept with and for rural customers. This concept will leverage the strengths of social media to facilitate connection and interaction among farmers from all over the world. We envision this concept to enable peer-to-peer information sharing, benchmarking, discussion with and among global and local peers, idea exchange, Q&As, and so on. The Virtual Farm Club will, in short, enable this generation of farmers and the next generation to share knowledge and best practices across a global virtual kitchen table.”