by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

An “agvocate” – a portmanteau of “agriculture” and “advocate” – is a person who represents and promotes both the industry and his own farm operation in a positive way to the public. In an age heavily influenced by social media and a public largely ignorant of farming, “agvocating” becomes more important than ever, according to Johanna Bossard and Emma Andrew.

Bossard, agricultural education teacher and FFA advisor at Hamilton Central School, and Andrew, industry relations specialist with American Dairy Association North East, presented “A Limitless Frontier: Agvocating for Yourself” at the recent Central New York Conference for Women, a farm event focusing on cultivating agricultural advocacy.

“Social media has grown through the years,” Andrew said. She showed a video presentation that chronicled the advances of social media, including the increasing popularity of visual content, which Andrew said is “40 times more likely to be shared.”

With Facebook’s 2 billion active users, Instagram’s 95 million posts, and 500 million Twitter tweets, it’s easy to see that many people use social media. In fact, 88 percent of consumers follow online recommendations as much as personal recommendations.

Are these social media consumers getting the full story about agriculture and your farm in particular? Bossard and Andrew want more farmers to engage the public via social media to educate, connect and promote agriculture.

So what social media format is best? That depends. “Know who your social media audience is,” Bossard said.

The various social media types, known as platforms, target different kinds of users and support different types of uses. For instance, Facebook and Instagram help people sell and market. The Baby Boomers and Generation X tend to use Facebook more. Instagram is where farmers can reach Millennials and Generation Z.

Andrew added that Twitter mixes the two as far as its generational reach and is best used if the farm wants to keep up a constant conversation.

Popularity also matters. Facebook has the most users, followed by Whatsapp, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.

“A lot of people don’t know about agriculture,” Andrew said. “Social media puts a face on an industry that can seem faceless. No one can tell your story better than you.”

She added that in addition to educating, she can use direct messaging on Facebook to connect with neighbors quickly.

“It lets us know if they have a birthday party, so it’s not a good day to spread manure,” Andrew said. Small gestures like this, facilitated by social media, go a long way in promoting positive relationships with neighbors.

Social media platforms offer analytics to know who’s using it. Social managers can know what types of posts do well and when to post to obtain more clicks.

On Facebook, the social managers can spend just a few dollars to boost popular posts, which can result in more clicks.

“Let content ‘live’ for a while and if it performs well, boost it,” Andrew advised. “If you boost a post, you can customize who will see it. You can target your post for the people you want to see it by gender, location and interest and you can exclude people.”

Bossard said about 85 to 90 percent of the public are the “moveable” middle that aren’t sure where they stand on farming. About 5 percent are staunchly against farming and about 5 percent are staunchly pro-farming.

Bossard admitted that “it’s hard to not get mad” about the anti-farming posts.

“Sometimes, I leave it a couple of hours to make sure it’s worded correctly,” she said.

Andrew recommended setting up community guidelines for your social media platform to block comments that contain certain words. But the person posting the unacceptable comment still believes their remark is live, so farmers don’t have to waste time replying to vitriol.

Targeting the moveable crowd represents the best way to spend marketing dollars – not that social media spending need sap the farm’s budget. Bossard said she has never spent more than $5 for a single boost and that most boosts are just a dollar or two.

“Blocking people will save you so much time in responding to negative comments,” Andrew said. “Trying to respond to those is where most people spend the most time using social media.”

Since it’s unlikely a dairy farmer will win over a PETA member or vegan, for example, it’s wasteful to doggedly persist in engaging them. It can also make farmers look bad to continue in online squabbles.

Andrew advised setting up a professional profile on social media if that’s available. The professional versions offer more analytic tools.

Updating content periodically helps keep people following your farm. The daily goings-on of your operation may not seem interesting to you, but to people who don’t farm, they can be very interesting and enlightening.

“Many say ‘I can’t be on Instagram all day,’” Bossard said. That’s why scheduling posts in advance can save a lot of time. Snapping occasional photo-worthy moments or taking short video clips periodically helps supply fodder for posting. Then, Instagram users can schedule when they want posts to show up. The same feature is available on Facebook, and Bossard advised making a file of posts and a standard list of hashtags for various types of photos.

Apps like Hootsuite allow users to post to a few social media platforms at a time instead of having to do so individually. That will also save farmers time.

“You can post older pictures or real-time photos,” Andrew added. “I recommend tagging locations, like your township, because your neighbors will follow that, not your farm. Mention relevant people. Three to four hash tags is a good amount.”

She also likes to add GIFs, countdowns and polls to posts, such as users’ favorite flavor of milk, to elicit responses.

“Photos that show the temperature are popular when it’s really cold,” Andrew said.

During a recent cold spell, a user posted concern about calf hutches (she called them “igloos”) posted on Bossard’s farm’s Facebook page. Her polite inquiry allowed the farm to educate her on why hutches offer calves a healthful, snug environment that keeps them safe. That’s just the kind of positive interaction that Bossard and Andrew want to foster through social media.

“I can share things to my Facebook and Instagram stories or private message someone directly,” Andrew said. Some conversations are better handled through private messages.

Many people wonder if they’re posting enough or too much. Bossard said for Facebook, four to six posts weekly is right. Instagram users should not post more than one daily. Twitter, owing to the messages’ diminutive size, has no real posting limit “as long as most of the tweets are engagement and conversation.”

Ideas for posts could initially include cute photos of calves and children, beauty shots of the farm and clean, content-looking animals. Andrew said farmers should start with photos and posts like these and not get into potentially controversial material until they feel more confident using social media.

“People are looking at content, but they’re looking at your stories more,” Bossard said.

Farmers don’t need to be experienced photographers and writers. They can also rely on others on the farm to help provide content, as well as information from farm organizations.

“Not everything has to be your own,” Andrew said.

“There are plenty of sources out there,” added Bossard.

The duo recommends, and