The Social Art of Distancing

Experts See Social Media Opportunities When Planting Season, Covid-19 Collide

Elizabeth Williams
By  Elizabeth Williams , DTN Special Correspondent
Meredith Bernard offers advice on effectively using social media to share your farm's practices. (Photo courtesy of Meredith Bernard)

INDIANOLA, Iowa (DTN) -- As coronavirus outbreaks turned city streets into ghost towns, people turned to social media to connect to the outside world.

Facebook, which also owns the popular social media platform Instagram, said its services were built to withstand spikes during events like New Year's Eve or the Olympic games.

"However, those happen infrequently, and we have plenty of time to prepare for them," Facebook vice presidents Alex Schultz and Jay Parikh wrote in a recent blog post. "The usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day." (https://about.fb.com/…)

As urban dwellers turn online, farmwork doesn't stop, and that provides a unique opportunity for farmers to share their perspective.

"I don't like the overused words, 'Tell our story.' Rather than your story, people want to know about your farm practices," said Mapleton, Minnesota, farmer and KCoe Isom consultant Kristin Duncanson. "They want to know how food becomes food."

Consumers are interested in how it gets from seed to table, and from livestock breeding pair to meat on the grill, she added. As the busy spring gets underway in many parts of the country, now is a great time for farmers to share what they do.

HOW TO GET STARTED

"Find a platform that you're comfortable with," said Meredith Bernard, who has been posting on social media for five years as "This Farm Wife." She also has a YouTube channel with just under 50,000 subscribers and blogs for DTN/Progressive Farmer. "I like Instagram because it is connected to Facebook and posts on both at the same time."

Spring is a busy season on the farm, and this could be a project for your children (or grandkids) who are looking for something to do now that they're home from college or high school. Decide whether you want to set up a YouTube channel, or account on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

WHAT TO INCLUDE

Duncanson suggested recording your farm practices.

"What did you do on the farm today or this week? It doesn't have to be clever," she said. "How has the coronavirus changed what you're doing? For example, we sold hogs last week, but our loadouts were stretched over the weekend because the packing plant has reduced shifts. It's OK to say, 'This is scary for us, too.' We want people to know we collaborate wherever we can with our buyers."

Be mindful of what you show and how you show it. Emphasize safety and the care you take, Bernard said.

"On one video, I was criticized for not wearing a seat belt as I drove my pick-up between fields on our farm (not on a public road)," recalled Bernard, who with her husband have a beef cow operation and raise hay, corn and soybeans in Milton, North Carolina. "What may be normal and safe to you, may not be to your viewers."

Bernard recommended taking care to show that you're wearing and using property safety equipment and always take care to show the safe ways you manage chemicals.

"I've taken videos of calving, castrating, haying and spraying that were well-received. I didn't share the collection process of our bull testing, but I did video the veterinarian looking through the microscope and explained what he was looking for," Bernard said. "I often explain that every farm animal we have has a job to do, and if they can't perform, we can't afford to keep them on the farm."

Before you post a video, play it back first and pay attention to what's going on around or behind you before you send it, Bernard advised.

People want to know how you are conserving our country's resources. "Talk about and show your conservation practices," Duncanson said.

AVOIDING NEGATIVE BLASTS

Duncanson recommended being honest, transparent and polite.

"Share authentically, the good and the bad. People relate to real," she said, adding that it's wise to avoid common trigger points. "I stay away from controversial topics like politics. My focus is just what we are doing on our farm, and I really haven't had a lot of negative responses."

Bernard noted that sometimes a vegan activist will want to start an argument. "I usually just ignore them. I've learned how to delete and block and not engage with people who are offended at anything different from their values."

While negative commenters can have a loud voice, she said it's important to put it into perspective. Only about five comments out of 300 are negative. "I can't dwell on those. Not everyone is going to like me."

Duncanson said it's helpful to understand that people are scared and some are angry.

"Food is such a basic need. People are seeing empty grocery shelves and then go to Twitter to vent their anger. Twitter is such an easy way to vent," she said, adding that different social media platforms have different reach. "Be thoughtful about your response, if you think it is worthy of a response. What you share is about your practice and how you make a decision."

GET HONEST FEEDBACK

"My best advice is to find a trusted, non-farm friend to use as a sounding board and review what you want to post," said Duncanson, who serves on the boards of the Upper Midwest Nature Conservancy and the Mankato Area Community Foundation. "Make sure you aren't offending anyone, and your explanations are thorough and understandable."

This is true especially in responding to questions which you might think are offensive but are mainly curious and are worthy of a response. "Sometimes it's best not to give a knee-jerk reaction."

SHARE OTHER FARMERS' PERSPECTIVES

"Sharing your life on social media is not for everyone," Bernard said, adding that you can still extend an authentic farm perspective by sharing other farmers' postings.

"But it's important for farmers to communicate with consumers and policymakers about how we run our business and raise food for the world. We need to share our story and our practices, because we can do it best. If someone is not comfortable with social media, the least he can do is to re-share what other farmers are posting. It's another way we can get our message out there," she said.

Elizabeth Williams can be reached at Elizabeth.williams@dtn.com

(KD/ES/AG)

Elizabeth Williams