TWITTER, FACEBOOK and other social media have built their reputations by helping people keep in touch with family and friends. But a growing cadre of farmers is harnessing social media as a tool for communicating with consumers about the business of agriculture.

They have been spurred by the increased interest in agriculture among consumers and the fear that outside groups using the same social media tools will misinform those consumers about how crops and livestock are raised.

“The reality is that people are talking about agriculture on Facebook and Twitter,” says Michele Payn-Knoper of Cause Matters, which provides agricultural advocacy training and social media strategy to farm groups and others. “If we aren't at the table, others will tell our story, and it may not be accurate.”

Use of social media by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) highlights what farmers are up against, she says. The number of “fans” following the group's Facebook pronouncements has grown 25-fold since January 2009.

Twitter says ‘moo’ and ‘oink’

Mike Haley, who raises crops and purebred Simmental cattle near West Salem, OH, demonstrated the power of Twitter on August 2, his 29th birthday. That day, he posted this tweet (as Twitter messages are called): “My Bday Wish: to get #moo to trend Today at 1:00 EST (10:00 AM PST) to show everyone's support of #family #dairy #farms.”

Translation: Haley wanted #moo (number signs, or hashtags, are used in front of key words to simplify Twitter searches) to be one of the top-10 most-talked-about topics on Twitter. For perspective, the number of tweets that day was probably above 15 million.

He got his wish. Over a seven-plus-hour period, #moo was in the top-10 list of topics and was mentioned in almost 4,000 messages from unique users.

“Did it raise the price of milk? No. But it raised awareness,” says Haley, whose Twitter followers know him as @FarmerHaley.

Since the #moo test, pork producers have seen #oink make it into the top-two Twitter trending topics. The tweet: “Help make Twitter #oink at 9 am EST, Sun Aug. 16. Goal: Leave the pigs out of it, support pork producers! It's H1N1, NOT Swine Flu.”

Building relationships

Haley started using Twitter in March 2009 after attending an Ohio Farm Bureau meeting, where attendees were encouraged to use social media to tell ag's story. He started slowly, gradually becoming comfortable with the new medium, which requires posts of 140 characters or less.

“Initially, I saw that the information about agriculture often wasn't accurate,” he recalls. “I slowly began to respond. You wouldn't believe the response I got. The more that they [other Twitter users] connected with me, the more they wanted input from the farm and realized I was telling the truth.”

Nowadays, he tweets using both his home computer and his cell phone with text messaging. He often includes a photo of what he's currently doing or of some of his family's prize cattle.

“I have about 2,000 people who follow me,” he says. “If I post a link, usually 40 or 50 people look at it right away. It is a trickle-down effect. I have exchanged tweets with people who are against production agriculture but who get to know me and get more comfortable with how I farm.”

Haley also has used Twitter to build friendships with producers across the country who have a similar interest in informing consumers about agriculture using social media. Together, they have begun building a database of farmers using Twitter (send a message to @followfarmer to be added to the database). He and six other farmers also have started a Twitter account called @farm2u to answer questions from consumers about farmers and farming.

“I think those of us in agriculture need to connect to consumers more,” he says. “With Twitter and other social media, you don't even have to leave the tractor seat to connect to consumers and put the face back on the farmer. I think every farmer should spend an hour a week connecting with consumers, whether it's through social media or face to face.”

Payn-Knoper had similar goals when she established #AgChat, a weekly streaming conversation about agriculture, on Twitter in 2009. #AgChat, which takes place every Tuesday at 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, has more than 2,300 followers.

Start slow

In her training sessions, Payn-Knoper recommends starting slow with social media, keeping in mind the long-term objective as you take your first uncomfortable steps. “The influence you can have with social media is far greater than you can have with the people at the end of your driveway simply because of the large number of people engaged with these tools,” she says.

“I typically recommend to folks that they spend 15 minutes a day to get started,” she continues. “If you are more social, you might enjoy working with Facebook rather than Twitter. If you like more technical information, and lots of it, then start with Twitter.”

For information on using social media, go to Payn-Knoper's Web site, www.michelepaynknoper.com. An October 8, 2009, blog post, “Translating the Twitterverse,” includes a glossary of terms as well as a link to top Twitter tutorials on YouTube.