More than 100 farmers and ranchers gathered at a hotel in downtown Kansas City in late August for two days of workshops and speeches.
However, the producers didn’t travel to western Missouri to hear about the agronomics or economics of agriculture. They were there to learn about blogging, Twitter and Facebook.
The producers attended the AgChat Foundation’s third annual Agvocacy training conference. As its name suggests, the foundation’s mandate is to get farmers and ranchers talking about agriculture. But instead of talking about the weather or commodity prices, the conference is designed to help producers tell their stories through YouTube, blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
Farmers in the U.S. Midwest came up with the idea of the foundation a few years ago. Since then, the organization has grown rapidly and its volunteers have trained hundreds of farmers to use social media more effectively.
“It seems to be, with technology as it is today, that it’s the best way to reach consumers,” said Jenny Schweigert, communications assistant with the AgChat Foundation, whose in-laws own a dairy in central Illinois.
“I think it’s very important that we share our stories with our customers, so they understand the grassroots efforts that farmers make … to provide safe and healthy food.”
Most of the graduates of the social media training, known as agvocates, are Americans, but four Canadians attended this summer’s conference in Kansas City.
One of them was Teresa Falk, who grew up on a mixed farm in southern Manitoba and now works as a communications specialist for Syngenta in Calgary. Falk, who described the conference as “amazing,” attended a session in advanced blogging because she has a personal blog on agricultural issues and rural life called ruralrouteramblings.wordpress.com.
Last year, the leaders of the AgChat Foundation received hundreds of applications to attend the annual training conference.
The 120 spots were allocated to producers and agricultural enthusiasts who want to enhance their online skills.
“We want to make sure we are training farmers and ranchers who are interested in getting involved in social media … to help them better tell their story,” Schweigert said.
Applicants aren’t selected because they have a particular agricultural philosophy, she added.
“We don’t favour one type of agriculture over another type of agriculture,” she said.
“It is not a group of large farmers that are coming together. There are farmers from all ends of the spectrum. Some who support organic and some who do not.”
The American Farm Bureau, one of the largest farm lobby groups in the United States, is a staunch supporter of the AgChat Foundation because it empowers producers who want to share their story, said public relations deputy director Mace Thornton.
“Communicating today is completely different than it was even three to four years ago,” he said.
“It’s all about giving them (farmers) the tools and the know how … so they can join in the big conversation that we’re all having about food and agriculture.”
Thornton said there will always be activists who won’t be swayed by a farmer’s blog or a tweet, but millions of Americans and Canadians are genuinely seeking more information about food production. More farmers participating in the online discussion represents an opportunity to put the facts on the table, he added.
“I think there is a level of misunderstanding that can only be broken down by farmers having conversations with people who have those concerns.”
It is only a few years old, but AgChat is planning to expand its reach. Next year, the foundation intends to have three or four regional training sessions as well as its annual conference.
Falk would like to see the AgChat Foundation hold a workshop in Canada or establish a chapter north of the border.
After meeting Americans in Kansas City who are actively tweeting and blogging about agriculture, Falk realized that more Canadian producers and agricultural representatives need to be part of the solution.
Even if Canadian producers just post a video on YouTube of a simple task on their farm, she added, they might be surprised by the power of social media.