The new clout of social media


Digital marketing matters | People discuss products, share opinions through Twitter, Facebook

Kelly Daynard didn’t understand the value or relevance of Twitter when it first exploded into popular culture, but that all changed three years ago when she watched an episode of Oprah.

In her role as communications manager for Farm & Food Care Ontario, which has the mandate of providing credible agricultural information, Daynard monitors food topics and discussions in the media.

In 2009, Daynard took an afternoon off to watch an Oprah episode featuring vegetarians and their thoughts on the meat industry. Daynard followed live discussions on Twitter while watching the show, and that’s when she had her moment of conversion.

“For me, that day, everything changed. In real time, farmers across North America were refuting the claims of the people on Oprah,” she said.

“It was the first time I could remember that we (farmers and ag groups) could go head to head with (someone like) Oprah. She might not have been reading the tweets … but other people across North America were.”

Since then, Daynard and other staff at Farm & Food Care Ontario, formerly the Ontario Farm Animal Council, have embraced Twitter and social media as a way to communicate directly with Canadians seeking information about food production.

Social media allows a small agricultural group like Farm & Food Care, which has 2,500 followers on Twitter, to take on powerful lobbyists who want to modify food production policies in North America.

“Until the advent of social media, there was always an unfair playing field when it came to anti-agricultural groups. Some of those movements are really well funded … and they would tell their stories, put up their billboards and their advertising campaigns and we never had the ability to touch them … because we just don’t have the finances.”

Farm & Food Care also operates two blogs. One, www.letstalkanimals.ca, focuses on livestock, while the other, www.caringfortheland.com, began this summer and provides information on agriculture and the environment.

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Daynard said both are designed to clear up misconceptions about food production and share positive stories about Canadian agriculture. For example, a blog post in early September shared information about a Stanford University study on the nutritional value of organic food versus conventional food.

In an ideal world, Daynard would like to see farmers contribute to the blog because stories direct from a producer are more credible than from someone in an office in Guelph.

Although he doesn’t have a blog, Brent Royce is one farmer who has fully embraced Twitter and now has 650 followers. Royce, who raises turkeys, sheep and has 500 acres of cropland north of Kitchener, Ont., has tweeted about his farm for two years.

“When I first started, I said if I get 100 (followers) I’ll be doing well.”

Typically, Royce sends out photos or information of everyday activities on his farm. As an example, the power once went out on the farm and Royce tweeted that he had to start up standby generators to power the turkey barns. An urban follower tweeted back, asking why that was necessary.

“What? Are the turkeys afraid of the dark?” Royce said, recalling the tweet. “They didn’t understand the need for ventilation.”

That kind of exchange may sound trivial, but Royce uses it as an opportunity to engage Canadians who want to know more about producing livestock or growing crops.

Depending on the day, Royce might spend a few minutes or half an hour on Twitter.

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“If you have a smart phone, you can manage it into your day very easily … but I think the time is very well spent on the education of the public,” said Royce, who is 40.

“If it takes an hour conversation to engage an urban person who doesn’t understand… it’s time well spent.”

Teresa Falk, who grew up on a farm near Snowflake, Man., has also been surprised by the power of social media. Falk, a communications specialist with Syngenta in Calgary, started a personal blog about a year ago to share positive stories about farming and food production. Falk now has more than 1,100 followers. She said many readers found her blog after they typed in keywords like food, farming or Manitoba into Google.

Her blog posts aren’t particularly controversial, including information on the history of canola and personal trips to Manitoba. However, Falk said critics of mainstream agriculture are skilled at using the web and Canadian producers need to use Twitter, blogs and other online tools to fight back.

Royce said social media offers advantages besides defending or explaining the industry. Following Twitter feeds from other producers has allowed him to build an online network across North America.

“You get connected with a lot of other farmers and you know what’s happening in the States and different parts of Canada,” he said.

“And you can share ideas and problems and troubleshooting issues with other farmers. That’s become a big benefit.”

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