Economy 2.0? Meet 'ifarmers' – they plant, tweet
Social-networking 'ifarmers' post messages from their tractor, or even from horseback, to reach consumers.
JeffFowle: "Back to baling again. Dew is perfect! #hay10 #agchat"Skip to next paragraph
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TroyBeast: @JeffFowle "you're baling hay at one in the morning?!"
At any time of day or night, Jeff Fowle is liable to whip out his Android smart phone and post a message to his growing base of readers. It can be about raising Angus cattle and Percheron draft horses; irrigation problems on his Etna, Calif., ranch; politics; or the reason he bales hay around midnight when the dew is uniform but not too heavy. He tweets from his office, his tractor, even from horseback.
"I can ride my horse w/o hands and bridle," explains Mr. Fowle via Twitter, where he has 24,000 followers. (He also posts on Facebook, Buzz, and other social media.) "All leg and seat position and pressure."
The fourth-generation farmer and rancher is part of a growing coterie of "ifarmers," who are using new media to communicate with consumers and other farmers directly. Many use it to build their business. Fowle started using social media last year to educate people about agriculture and, as he phrases it, "put a face back on the plate." By reconnecting with consumers, ifarmers are personalizing a food chain that over decades has grown more complex, globalized, and impersonal.
"Twitter's wide-open platform allows farmers to have conversations on a global basis, regardless of the subject," reports Michele Payn-Knoper, founder of the AgChat Foundation and whose "#agchat" forum on Twitter has attracted more than 2,500 people from nine countries since its inception in April 2009.
It wasn't a business plan that convinced the Verrill family to push into new media, it was a disaster. When fire destroyed the family's Concord, Mass., farm store in 2008, so many distraught customers came by to offer condolences that the family decided to reach out to customers online. [Editor's note: This sentence was changed to correct the year of the fire.] By the time they reopened a year later, the Verrills already had a blog following and a Twitter feed. Today, more than 1,000 people follow @VerrillFarm's tweets about produce from the 100-acre farm and value-added treats made in their kitchens or by other local businesses.
Social media is just one form of outreach. After a recent tweet promoted their variety of fresh-picked pumpkins, customers flooded the farm stand. "Hard to say if the tweet had an effect on pumpkin sales," says John Walker, social-media coordinator for Verrill Farm. "We were slammed on Saturday, but can't put a finger on why."