by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If your farm isn’t promoting itself and the dairy industry on social media, perhaps it should. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like can become additional tools in marketing dairy in general and your farm specifically. Unlike other forms of media, using these sites costs nothing. More importantly, they’re “how more people are communicating and getting their information today,” said Steve Ammerman, who represents New York Farm Bureau. “Farmers must be engaged in the platform. I once had a farmer tell me that the farm no longer ends at the fence post.”

He explained that the “marketing plan” of the past consisted of selling milk to the co-op, but that no longer works. With consumers’ concerns about animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and food safety, “farmers must be a part of that conversation in order to maintain consumer confidence and showcase the great work and care they provide.”

For the uninitiated, selecting a social media platform may seem overwhelming; however, by analyzing what message you want to send and to whom, it becomes easier to see which platform(s) make the most sense. Selecting more platforms can mean more work, unless one uses a service that posts to multiple platforms at a time, such as Hootsuite or If This Then That (IFTTT). Both of those apps are free. Some social media sites also provide built-in sharing capability.

For most farms, Facebook is pretty easy and since it’s so widely used, many consumers will access it.

“It is a good place to have conversations, share content, and engage with followers,” Ammerman said.

That’s how El-Vi Farms, LLC likes to share updates and photos of what’s new at the dairy, such as cute calf photos, grandchildren of farm partners, and participation of community events and tours, according to George Andrew, a partner at the Newark, NY, farm.

“The reason our farm participates in social media is first and foremost, we really genuinely care about the community,” Andrew said. “We care about our customers, our neighbors and we want to share the good news and good story and the positive things we’re doing and also some of the challenges we’re facing.”

The farm milks 1,750 cows, along with raising 1,800 replacement stock and crops on 3,600 acres in two counties. A partnership of Allan Ruffalo, George Andrew, Kim Skellie and Josh Peck operates the farm.

While El-Vi’s level of transparency may seem like an exposure to potential criticism of both the farm and agriculture, Andrew said transparency helps build trust, which is a core philosophy at El-Vi. The farm also posts videos on YouTube, which can help community members better understand modern farming. What may seem routine — milking, calf birthing, feeding — can fascinate people unfamiliar with farming. Showing everyday routines and highlighting special events on video engages people more than just text.

El-Vi also uses Twitter, which is ideal for short, pithy comments on farming news and dairy products and receive responses from consumers.

“There’s a lot of new product development in dairy and new research in the area of dairy products that has found that new dairy products are being considered part of a health and wellness program, along with diet and exercise,” Andrew said.

Promotion of chocolate milk as an idea post-workout “recovery” beverage is one example.

The farm also uses Instagram, to share farm beauty shots, cute calves and children, and product photos.

Barbland Dairy in Fabius and Lincklaen, NY milks 1,700 head and farms 5,000 acres. Johanna Bossard is a high school agriculture teacher at Hamilton Central School District whose husband, Bret Bossard is a partner at Barbland. She believes it’s important for farmers “to share your stories and your message about agriculture. Consumers are three to four times removed from the farm and have no idea what happens day to day on farms.”

She said that for too long, too many farmers have remained silent while those opposed to agriculture captured consumers’ attention. Instead of fearing negative responses to their posts, farmers should embrace it.

“If you hide behind your barn doors, that’s when people think you’re doing bad, scary things,” Bossard said.

Should people post negative comments, she advises farmers to avoid engaging them.

“They’re not worth battling,” Bossard said. “It’s not worth it, so I don’t waste my time. I want to talk with someone who wants to have an educated conversation. They’re willing to say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that’ or come out to a farm tour. You don’t have to listen to every quack out there.”

She likes posting photos of her children on the farm, which can help people realize that farming is a family endeavor and lifestyle. She also likes to emphasize how farming has developed in its use of science and technology to dispel “American Gothic”-type of preconceptions about farmers.

“A 1980 computer doesn’t look like a computer looks now,” Bossard said. “Ag has evolved and we should be proud and share that story.”

Should a person post a question you can’t answer, take some time to research and ask another farmer or others in the know.

Bossard advises starting slowly by posting weekly. Eventually, you can post more often. Facebook allows users to schedule posts, so busy people can “stock up” on posts during a slow time and the posts will appear over a long time period. On the weekend, Bossard sometimes schedules posts for the whole week.

“I follow lots of fellow farmers and that’s where I get some ideas, too,” she said. “You don’t have to re-invent the wheel. See how you could spin something you see. You don’t have to put a ton of time into it. Ask for help from the younger generation. I think sometimes the older generation doesn’t like to ask for help.”