Tweeting farmers bridge gap between farm, table

More and more Canadian farmers are using Twitter to bridge the gap between farm and table, connecting Canadians wanting to know more about where their food comes from with the people who make their living producing it.
Wayne Black often tweets from his iPad on his farm in southwestern Ontario. (Courtesy Wayne Black)

When Wayne Black is finished tapping out his latest tweet, he puts his iPad back in the tool box on his tractor or slides it down beside his seat.

The tweeting started after he began using "the toys that made us more mobile." But for the southwestern Ontario farmer, there's nothing flip or fanciful about dashing off a 140-character missive about his corn or soybean harvest.

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Like more and more farmers across Canada, Black has found that Twitter has become, among other things, a way to bridge the gap between farm and table, and connect Canadians wanting to know more about where their food comes from with the people who make their living producing it.

"We're able to explain what we do on our farm," says Black, who farms with his father in Huron County, near Goderich.

In one exchange, Black answered questions on pesticide use. In another, he invited a consumer from Ottawa to come and walk in his soybean field.

Black is by no means alone in connecting this way.

At Fox Hill Cheese House in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, Amy Dukeshire keeps her Twitter feed current. She tells followers about the farm business's latest products and whether the cows are out to pasture; and she fields questions on everything from hormones to antibiotic use in the dairy herd.

'It's allowed us to interact with our customers even more.'—Amy Dukeshire. Fox Hill Cheese House

"There's that misconception that there's hormones everywhere throughout the milk, and of course that's definitely not the case," she says. "We're not organic, but we do everything as natural as we can."

Fox Hill Cheese House, part of a sixth-generation family operation, started tweeting last year and has found Twitter to be very effective when it comes to introducing new products.

"It's allowed us to interact with our customers even more," Dukeshire says. "I don't see us stopping using it, that's for sure."

Know your food

The social gap between farm and table has been growing for decades in Canada. The country's farm population has been in steady decline and fell another 6.2 per cent between 2001 and 2006, according to Statistics Canada.

Eighty years ago, one in every three Canadians lived on a farm. In 2006, it was one in 46. So farmers and consumers are seeking new ways to keep alive the connection to the land. 

Andrew Campbell's BlackBerry is always with him on his farm west of London, Ont.

Andrew Campbell, who farms with his wife and parents west of London, Ont., frequently turns to his BlackBerry to send off a tweet about what's going on in their dairy and cash crop operation.

"I think the big thing is you want to make sure that people are comfortable with the processes that you're doing on your farm," says Campbell, who also has a media consulting firm. "The big thing right now is local food and knowing where your food comes from."

He estimates he gains up to five followers each day.

"Hopefully it keeps the customers you've got, and keeps them more comfortable with what you're doing, and also makes people realize it is important to support Canada or Ontario or whatever local is to them."

But social media is more than a way to connect and build trust with food-savvy consumers. For farmers, it is also becoming a key business tool, whether for marketing products, following commodity prices and crop information, or just staying connected with other farmers.

"People still have somewhat of a romantic image of a farmer," says Stewart Skinner, a pork producer who tweets about the "farrow-to-finish" operation he and his family run near Listowel, Ont.

At the end of the day, though, "we're just like any other small business owner, and the world moves at a pretty fast pace."

First in the pool

In other words, time is money. For the farmer, getting an update on crop prices in the U.S. Midwest with a quick glance at a tweet can have a distinct advantage, particularly at planting and harvesting time.

What's more, for the people who want to communicate that information to farmers, Twitter is becoming more and more important.

'We feel that Twitter is going to become the primary way we connect with our growers within a few years.'—Rick Taillieu

The Alberta Canola Producers Commission began sending tweets two years ago, for example.

"We started to see a little bit of activity in Twitter in terms of agriculture and we figured if we're going to jump in, we may as well be first in the pool rather than last in the pool," says Rick Taillieu, the organization's grower relations co-ordinator.

None of this is to say Twitter is revolutionizing farming, or that farmers are setting any records in the Twitter-verse.

Farmers like Campbell, Black and Skinner have Twitter followers in the hundreds or low thousands, nothing in the 13-million-plus territory of teen idol Justin Bieber, as Skinner wryly notes.

Not every farmer has a smartphone. And tweets, by their very nature, offer little opportunity for instant in-depth information sharing — although they can give links to any number of sources.

But for the canola commission's Taillieu and others, Twitter is the trend to watch.

"We feel that Twitter is going to become the primary way we connect with our growers within a few years."

'They can vent'

Taillieu estimates about 250 of the 13,000 canola growers in Alberta are now on Twitter, up from about 25 at the start of this year's growing season.

"As more and more farmers get on it, it's going to grow exponentially."

His organization has no plans to drop traditional means of communication with farmers — newsletters, mail, media releases.

But Twitter is the information channel he likes best, whether it's to tell producers about a new disease that's been spotted in a canola field — the sooner it's known, the sooner it can be stamped out — or about meetings that are coming up.

'Farmers don't feel so isolated any more.'—Wayne Black

"There's no easier way to send information out quickly that's storable than a way like this."

For farmers, there is also a social and psychological element to Twitter. Those little bursts of communication, sent from the solitude of the stable or a tractor cab, suddenly connect that person with the outside world.

"Farmers don't feel so isolated any more," says Black.

"Farmers in rural Ontario or rural wherever, they don't have that same social communication with their neighbours or that social interaction like people in the city.

"It can be a struggle on the farms some days .... By using social media, they can vent."

Political voice

They can also have discussions. In some ways, the Twitter world has become the local coffee shop that farmers would otherwise drive to.

And some of the ideas they share get directly to the politicians who are making agricultural policy decisions. Both Black and Skinner have discovered that Twitter provides a direct link to legislators, who have staffers plugged very firmly into the Twitter world.

After Black tweeted last summer about an issue regarding Ontario's Environmental Farm Plan, he saw the provincial agriculture minister at a meeting. She approached him, mentioned the tweet and suggested further discussion.

Many farmers take care to separate the useful information from the drivel that can crop up in the Twitter-verse — the wheat from the chaff as it were.

"You can't control who follows. For a farm business, it's really important to be professional about everything that goes up there because you don't know who's following you," says Mary Forstbauer, whose family runs an organic farm in Chilliwack, B.C.

But while no one is suggesting Twitter is essential for all farmers, it is becoming harder to ignore.

"You could survive without being on social media, that's for sure," says Black. "[But] is it going to be an advantage to you to be on social media as a farmer? It could be."

For him, "the return is getting the message out there and explaining to consumers what we do in modern agriculture. It's not all the fear-mongering that they're hearing from the activist groups."

Plus, he can say it in less than 140 characters before he puts the iPad back in the tool box and heads back down the soybean field again.