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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Social media connect farmers with local customers

USA Today
by Jennifer Justus, The Tennessean
Sept 4, 2011

Locally, the only glimpse you might get of farmer Kimberlie Cole comes at markets as she sells her organically raised meats from the back of a truck, hair tucked back in a kerchief.

But when she's back at West Wind Farms in Morgan County, she likes to give her customers a glimpse into life there from her smartphone. And it might be as close as any of us get.

"We're rural. We're kind of remote," she said. "But they can see pictures and basically get a live report of what's going on."

Social media connect farmers with local customers.

But more than chronicle her adventures, Cole updates customers about her whereabouts when making deliveries or heading to the market. She posts recipes that can be used with her products (often from her table), as well as articles on topics she supports.

"I guess the most important thing is getting (customers) connected with our product," she said.

While it's a misnomer that farmers aren't technologically savvy (they've been using GPS on their tractors for decades), it can be hard to picture them stopping to type with their thumbs while standing between rows of cornstalks. But that's what many agriculturists have been doing lately to connect with consumers. Last week, the AgChat Foundation held a conference in downtown Nashville for farmers across the country - and spanning many farm types and sizes - to learn about improving social media skills. It's the second conference held by the organization, and attendance doubled in size this year.

"When I first started the Facebook page, mom and dad didn't even know what Facebook was," said Amy Delvin Tavalin, daughter of Cindy and Hank Delvin of Delvin Farms in College Grove. "Now, Mom has a Facebook page."

A business tool

Michele Payn-Knoper, who founded the AgChat Foundation, has been helping raise Holstein and dairy cattle since she was 9 years old. She believes that consumers should have accurate sources of information about where their food comes from and cares deeply about helping eaters connect directly with producers.

In 2009, she began holding conversations on Twitter to facilitate that link by tagging each tweet with #AgChat. (Hashtags mark tweets so that they can be viewed all together no matter who has tweeted them.) In addition to the weekly #AgChat, Payn-Knoper began to hold #FoodChat, and a year later she launched the AgChat Foundation as an umbrella organization for them both.

At AgChat's Nashville conference, it was business as usual - round tables with pitchers of water, screens for PowerPoint presentations. But attendees were more apt to be wearing boots and ballcaps, and at least one iPad was spotted with a sticker on the back that read "Ag Nerd."

Because the first AgChat conference was held in Chicago, Payn-Knoper said she chose Nashville for the organization's second conference because she wanted it to happen in a Southern location. Attendees had to apply for a spot, and though she planned to accept 75 farmers, she ended up choosing about 90 participants. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 people have used #AgChat - from farmers to chefs, foodies and mom bloggers.

Brian and Samantha McLerran of Diamond M Farms in Moss, Tenn., attended the event.

Samantha is a physician who spends much of her time speaking with patients about health, while her husband is a sixth generation family farmer raising Angus cattle. They, too, enjoy tweeting about the happenings at their farm, but they also like to share facts about their industry and participate in conversations that might come from animal welfare groups, for example.

"I care a great deal about the animals on my farm," Samantha said. "They cost money ... our kids will eat them."

An inside look

Delvin Farms' Amy Delvin Tavalin also said social media helps manage her farm's reputation. She uses Google alerts, which tell her when her farm has been mentioned, to keep tabs on what consumers are saying about the farm.

For example, she noticed that a former Delvin Farms CSA customer had dropped out of the program because he said he was overwhelmed by the amount of food the Delvins delivered. After reading the comment, Amy spoke with her family about the size of the boxes. Her mother, Cindy, now includes more recipes with the CSA boxes to help consumers know how to prepare the fresh food.

"It's real-time feedback," Amy said.

But then Amy, who manages Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr and a blog for the farm, also loves capturing moments while harvesting that she knows her customers will appreciate.

When she noticed a bird's nest in an apple tree, she snapped a photo and tweeted: "On an organic farm, nature and farmers can coexist peacefully!"

"A picture," she said, "really is worth a thousand words."