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Maximizing Social Media
Above: Farmers Ron Moore (far left) and Deb Moore (far right) host
Field Moms Amy Rossi, Amy Hansmann, Julie Barreda, Farrah Brown, Betsie Estes,
and Pilar Clark.
A steady diet of unappetizing stories and Internet
posts about food production has sent farmers to the test kitchen to find a new
recipe for reaching consumers.
The lean, finely textured beef (LFTB) food fight was fed by
social media. Its emergence as one of the top food stories of 2012 shows how
the digital age is transforming the food landscape for American farmers.
The $1.2 billion LFTB defamation lawsuit filed against ABC
News in a South Dakota court by Beef Processors, Inc., isn’t likely to diminish
American consumers’ appetite for knowing more about their food.
When food safety questions arise, 45% of consumers search
for more information online, according to the 2012 Consumer Trust in the Food
System study by the Center for Food Integrity (CFI).
“The Internet increases the voice of extremists,” says
Temple Grandin, the Boston-born Colorado State University animal science
professor and consultant on the humane treatment of animals.
Grandin admits that she was unfamiliar with lean, finely
textured beef when the food fight went viral last year. “I realize now we’re
throwing away a lot of beef without it,” she says. “The plant should have
opened up to the media and provided ammonia’s safety figures. The public doesn’t
That’s why Grandin turned to YouTube to conduct a video tour
of a beef packing plant. “Agriculture has done a lousy job of communicating
with the public,” she says. “Surveys show that public attitudes about food
issues are somewhere between the extremes. We need to communicate with the
majority in the middle.”
Recent research supports Grandin’s observations. Simply promoting the efficiency of modern
farms or the need to feed the world isn’t enough. CFI research reveals that
shared values are more important to building trust than technical competence.
“Consumers know farmers are capable, but do they know that
farmers share their values?” asks Roxi Beck, a CFI representative and manager
In response, farmers are serving up a new main menu of
social media and old-fashioned one-on-one communication to portray the
realities of modern food production and to maintain consumer trust.
Food for Thought
The 2012 CFI Consumer Trust survey shows that Facebook is the
top Internet connection site for food bloggers.
That’s why Bill Couser welcomed food bloggers to his Nevada,
Iowa, farm during the three-day Iowa CornQuest, organized by the Iowa Corn
Growers. “I’m excited to have you here, because it’s a privilege to showcase
U.S. agriculture,” he told participants. “I still put a round seed in the
ground and have faith it’ll produce. But farmers do a lot of techie stuff, too.”
Last fall, Couser hosted 10 bloggers from across the U.S. in
his new office – built with boards from an old county farm barn. Its conference
room features four flat screens used for presentations.
Couser explained ethanol’s role in producing DDGs for cattle
feed. “Combined with harvesting grass, it’s a renewable system,” he said. He
referred to his manure-management plan, monoslope feedlot structure, and
biomass filters, noting that his farm received a 2011 National Environmental
After the bloggers left, he said, “They have no idea how
much influence they have. They can directly reach an audience that I can’t
begin to touch.”
Left to right: CornQuest participants include Ali Ebright of
Gimme Some Oven; Rebecca Lindamood of Foodie with Family; Carrie Fields of
Fields of Cake; Julie Chiou of Table for Two; Carrian Cheney of Sweet Basil;
Iowa farmer Bill Couser; Janelle Maiocco of Talk of Tomatoes; Tina Wiley of My
Life as a Mrs; Kelley Epstein of Mountain Mama Cooks, Shari Sacchi of Tickled
Red; and Lisa Huff of The Snappy Gourmet.
New Flavors on Ag Menu
Other new ag initiatives also revolve around women. Common
Ground (findourcommonground.com), launched in 2010, is a network of 45 farm
women in 15 states. They focus their efforts on grocery stores, cooking
schools, and state fairs, as well as social media.
“Studies show the wife or mother is making family food
decisions,” says volunteer Sara Ross, Minden, Iowa. “What better outreach than
having moms communicating with moms and telling stories about farming so people
Common Ground volunteers post blogs, field online consumer
questions and maintain a community Facebook page and a strong presence on
Twitter. They receive travel reimbursement through corn and soybean checkoff
Illinois Farm Families was created in 2010 by a state
coalition, including the Illinois Beef Association, Corn Marketing Board, Farm
Bureau, Pork Producers Association, and Soybean Association.
Their research has shown that farmers are respected by the
public, but consumers have less trust in modern farm techniques. Food safety
and animal welfare were revealed as two top concerns.
The program invites Chicago-area Field Moms to tour
participating farms. Last summer, they adopted an acre of soybeans on the Ron
and Deb Moore farm near Roseville, Illinois. The “Moms” also planted a backyard
bean crop, and tried to nurture it through the drought.
Recently, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance partnered
with Cooper Anderson Live to send a Long Island woman to visit Lynn and Mike
Martz, another Illinois Farm Family near Maple Park.
A December Cooper Anderson Live episode highlighted a New
York City woman’s trip to the White City, Kansas, Angus farm of Debbie
Lyons-Blythe. The television team also held an online contest for viewers to
submit food-related questions.
Other successful multimedia vehicles include America’s
Heartland, a weekly program that airs on more than 240 public TV stations, and
includes a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Something to Chew on
CFI research shows that consumers put less trust in
promotions funded by companies with a profit motive. Individuals are perceived
as more genuine ag advocates.
“People don’t know the most basic things about farms,”
Grandin says. “Farmers need to post photos on the Internet showing how they
care for animals. People like to see real people.”
She also says tech-savvy young farmers who are piggybacking
positive messages about agriculture into pop culture are reaching a new
generation of consumers.
“The YouTube video [“I’m Farming and I Grow It”] of the
three young Peterson brothers is fabulous,” she says. “We need stuff like that.
We need Facebook posts of students having good times on the farm.”
The Peterson brothers’ new YouTube video, “Farmer Style,” is
a takeoff on the popular PSY’s “Gangnam Style.” It drew over 2 million views in
Anne Burkholder, a Florida-born Ivy
Leaguer-turned-Nebraska-cattle-feeder, launched her blog, The Feed Yard Foodie,
in 2011. She reached out in her blog to address the consumer furor about lean,
finely textured beef. Burkholder receives occasional technology support for her
site from the Beef Checkoff.
She posts twice a week to her site,
Burkholder also is active on BlogHer.com, a social media
site that reaches millions of women.
“Blogging is a way to share my story,” she says. “I don’t
believe blogging is a way to defend. Instead, it’s a way to address the
ever-growing desire from consumers to know and to understand where their food
comes from, and going beyond that, to trust those who grow it.”
Recipe is Taste + Trust
Arguments about the benefits of cost-cutting technology won’t
necessarily win the trust of consumers, says Neil Hamilton, Drake University
professor of ag law, Des Moines, Iowa.
“It’s understandable farmers and industry feel the LFTB
charges were unfair, and someone should be held accountable,” he says. “A lot
of it can be traced back to parents being surprised to find their children’s
school lunch included an unfamiliar product with an icky-sounding name.”
Consumers, after all, have the last word on questions of
food safety and nutrition at the grocery check-out counter. The 2012 Food News
Study by Hunter Public Relations reveals that 34% of consumers reported buying
or consuming less ground beef and that many selected alternative proteins.
These concerns may subside in 2013, and consumers may return
to their prior buying habits. But a steady diet of negative food stories going
viral on social media would be a recipe for disaster.
That’s why media-savvy farmers must rely on a buffet-style
menu to communicate. “There’s so much in the media that it’s hard to know what
to believe when it comes to our food supply,” Lisa Huff blogged after her Iowa
CornQuest visit. “Seeing things firsthand makes me feel better about the food I’m
The winning recipe may prove to be multiplatform: a dash of
one-on-one conversation, two scoops of social media, and a pinch of real life
on the farm.
Giving Food a Bad Name
Some of the shock tactics used by food critics are hard for
farmers to digest. But attacking them may worsen the public relations fallout.
“People who reacted negatively to the LFTB story were
described as anti-meat,” says Neil Hamilton, director of the Drake University
Agricultural Law Center, Des Moines, Iowa. “Most were only anti-LFTB. What if
LFTB had been labeled 15 years ago? Filing a defamation lawsuit against the
media isn’t an easy case to make.”
Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal science
professor, agrees. Grandin, an authority on humane animal treatment,
acknowledges that social media can get down and dirty.
“You have what I call ‘nasty boys,’” she says. “Don’t
interact. Block and delete. But don’t take down dissent from vegans or others.
Never type your angry response directly onto a site. Write it by hand first so
your response is reasoned.
“Passing laws against people taking videos sends a terrible
message to the public,” she adds. “Every phone is a video camera. We’ve got to
get rid of the mystery. Animal rights activists are a minority. It’s a mistake
to call them all terrorists.”
Giving Food the First Degree
After her Iowa CornQuest visit to the Bill Couser farm, Lisa
Huff (aka The Snappy Gourmet) blogged, “I love seeing where my food is coming
from and going on food tours and manufacturing tours, and anything else I come
across. I always find the processes fascinating and eye-opening.”
Huff, who has an MBA in finance, left her job to be home
with her children and to pursue a passion of creating original recipes.
Another CornQuest highlight was a breakfast buffet with Ruth
MacDonald, who chairs the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at
Iowa State University.
“Dr. MacDonald said to do our own research about GMOs,
hormones, antibiotics, and high-fructose syrup,” says Carrian Cheney, who
writes a blog called Sweet Basil. “She suggested reputable sources like
MacDonald fielded an hour-long Q&A from the bloggers
about hormones, obesity, and antibiotics. CornQuest is a sponsored by Iowa Corn
Growers with support from Iowa Pork and Beef Producers.