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Maximizing social media
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 like surprises.”
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 of BestFoodFacts.org.
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 Stewardship Award.
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.”
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 can understand?”
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 funds.
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.
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.”
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 48 hours.
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, feedyardfoodie.wordpress.com.
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 eating.”
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 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 peer-reviewed journals.”
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.