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Economy 2.0? Meet 'ifarmers' – they plant, tweet

Social-networking 'ifarmers' post messages from their tractor, or even from horseback, to reach consumers.

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Many farmers are beginning to use the medium. In 1997, 13 percent of US farmers engaged in e-commerce, says Peter Stenberg, an economist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Today, 33 percent do, including John Wood, of US Wellness Meats.

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Inspired to promote health, the fifth-generation Missouri farmer changed his work methods, switching his 300-acre farm from conventional livestock production to grass-fed beef in 2000. He launched a website to reach consumers, but it did not increase his clientele. Realizing he needed to educate people about the benefits of grass-fed beef, Mr. Wood formed alliances with wellness doctors and others and hired a consultant who helped him get into social media. "People didn't even know what grass-fed beef is," he says. "Now they do. It's been a long, slow process, and it's a paradigm shift."

While larger operations sometimes designate a farm employee to handle social media communication, Gail VanWart of Peaked Mountain Farm in Dedham, Maine, keeps her hands in every aspect of the family business. She offers her 1,800-plus Twitter followers up-to-the-minute posts about wild blueberry farming, the farm's signature blueberry dog treats that sell nationally, new products, and TwitPics of her dog, Blae, rooting around the blueberry fields. In return, followers of @PeakedMtFarm send words of support, and retweet to help spread information.

An iPhone junkie, Ms. VanWart takes her smart phone along and conducts business while harvesting. "There is an app for everything that I need to do," she explains in an e-mail. "I can send and receive faxes and take a phone call from people who still order the old-fashioned way, scan items with my phone, and accept credit-card charges."

Ifarming is still a small slice of agribusiness. On a wholesale level, only about 4 percent of farm product sales was conducted online in 2006, about $5 billion worth, according to the USDA. On the retail level, ifarmers aren't going to challenge Wal-Mart or Kroger anytime soon. Still, by sharing their personal stories and educating people about farming one tweet at a time, ifarmers are forging relationships and reconnecting customers with a food system that has grown distant with the addition of food processors and multiple wholesalers and grocers and whose stories are told secondhand in the media rather than by farmers themselves.

"Social media has created a bridge between consumers and producers," Fowle writes in an e-mail. "For too long, we in agriculture have relied upon industry organizations to tell our story and Main Stream Media has carried negative stories, while those of us growing the food, fiber, fuel and shelter have remained silent. S[ocial] M[edia] has provided us an opportunity to find our voice, [and] tell our own story."

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