IN THE hyper world of social media, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube get much of the glory. But for a growing number of farmers, an online forum called AgTalk is where the action is when it comes to building an online community.

Each day, the AgTalk forum (talk.newagtalk.com) records hundreds of thousands of “hits” from farmers across the U.S. and around the world as they read and contribute posts on topics as varied as the price of seed, the progress of harvest, machinery options and the vagaries of politicians and the policies they propose.

All this from a forum run by and for farmers that started with a $500 investment and a vision of building a noncommercial online community.

“What we wanted was a forum for an unfettered exchange of ideas,” says David Orr, the Ohio farmer who, along with several others, spearheaded development of AgTalk. “On AgTalk, we see people talking, sharing information and making friendships around the country and around the globe.”

How it started

The history of ag forums dates to the 1990s, when agricultural magazines and other Internet pioneers began offering Web forums designed for farmers. AgTalk got its start in 2000 when Orr and other forum participants found that commercial forums were becoming more difficult to use. Advertisements and graphics on commercial sites took too long to download with the dial-up Internet speeds common at that time, he recalls.

“Our earliest pitch was no ads, no animations,” he says. “It was not high-frills. It was just very basic. No one seemed to care. We went from 2,000 hits a day to 50,000 in about two days. It is succeeding like we never expected.”

Today, the forum has over 14,000 registered users. Untold thousands of others look at the site regularly but do not register, which is required to post messages.

“We continue to triple our volume every two years,” Orr says. “I keep thinking our rate of growth will level off, but that hasn't happened yet. Our first server had only 100 megabytes of storage available. Now we generate that much new material every day. Until we reach saturation, we will continue to upgrade and add servers.”

Menu changes

Initially, Orr ran the day-to-day technical side of the site by himself. Now, farmers from around the U.S. volunteer their time to moderate the forum and keep the site up and running. To defray costs, site administrators post a request once a year for contributions. When the annual budget of several thousand dollars is raised, the contribution request is removed until the following year.

Although Orr owns the AgTalk Internet address, site administration is a community affair. Volunteers moderate the site to make sure participants follow rules to keep conversation civil and noncommercial. An informal board of advisors also passes judgment on making changes to the site. Recent changes include the addition of the sections Kitchen Table (family and home topics) and Boiler Room (politics and hot-button issues).

The Kitchen Table was added to encourage more women to get involved with the forum. “AgTalk has been predominantly a guy's place. I would like to see more women get involved,” Orr says.

More changes are ahead. About the time you read this, AgTalk will have unveiled several new features, courtesy of the efforts of several forum participants who are hammering out details. The forum's For Sale section will be completely revamped to improve search capability. Other new features under consideration include a photo gallery, plus an area for member-written blogs. There also will be a wiki (similar to Wikipedia), which will allow members to contribute and collaborate on content relevant to agriculture.

Orr is especially enthused about the wiki. “I think it will be slow getting off the ground, but it has tremendous possibilities,” he says. “It will change the way we use the site. Instead of watching topics slide off of Page 1 every day, as they do with a forum format, only to be brought up again and again, wiki software will allow users to build pages with some permanence. What about a page for combine modifications or any other topic you are interested in? Now we are not just talking, we are collaborating.”

“We are not doing away with the forum,” Orr adds, “but are adding tools to our kit.” Another thing that won't change is the forum's noncommercial status. “I've had people ask me if we are going commercial,” he says. “We've had people who have wanted to buy the site, or to partner with us. I think that would kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Face time

Recently, Ag Talk participants have taken steps to bridge virtual friendships into a community that meets face to face and comes to the aid of members in need of help.

Following a kickoff get-together in Kansas City last winter, about 100 AgTalk members met this fall at a picnic scheduled in conjunction with the Farm Progress Show. Orr and other attendees of the SMASH (the host's user name) Bash met face to face, in many cases for the first time. Another meeting is scheduled this month in St. Louis.

“You get to know people from their posts on AgTalk, but it's nice to put a face to their user name and get to know their real name, too,” Orr says.

The AgTalk community also came together in 2009 on behalf of a member whose child faced large medical bills. Within days, members had raised $25,000.

“The day of considering a neighbor [only] as someone who lives down the road is about over,” Orr says. “On AgTalk, we have friends and neighbors who are not constrained by physical distance.”

Let's Talk Ag

FARM INDUSTRY NEWS has a discussion forum on its Web site called Let's Talk Ag. Topics include livestock, crops, hog production and forages. In the Farm Machinery forum, readers can post questions about hard-to-find machinery parts and other growers can answer those questions with the sources and solutions they have found.

Add your opinions, questions and expertise to the discussion. Visit www.farmindustynews.com and click on Let's Talk Ag. Or go directly to letstalkag.com.