How do farmers network?
Farming lends itself to spending a lot of time alone. Physically getting together with like-minded people is naturally more difficult in rural America with fewer people nearby, bigger distances to drive, and fewer meeting places. However, building community is important for mental health and continued learning.
The internet has been changing the way farmers network and get information for years. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s played a critical role in keeping farmers connected to ag businesses and each other over the last year.
Through 2020, many staple industry events were not held in person. Farm Science Review, USDA’s Ag Outlook Forum, and Farm Progress Show were moved online. The 2021 National Farm Machinery Show was cancelled all together.
For the first time in the organization’s 102-year history, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) 2021 annual convention was held virtually. More than 8,000 people registered for the online event, surpassing attendance records of all prior in-person annual conventions.
“Back in February , we would use Zoom or virtual meetings just as a sideline. Now, we do thousands of them a month; five or six of them a day, communicating back with our states and our counties,” said AFBF president Zippy Duvall in his opening remarks of the January event.
The farmers of XtremeAg, a network of farmers who’ve organized to share their expertise with fellow farmers, found themselves in a similar position. They held their first-ever membership meeting via Zoom late in 2020. Their six founding members have varying levels of comfort with this new way of gathering.
Iowa farmer Kelly Garrett has participated in “numerous Zoom calls” and appreciates the way it enables him to expand his network from the comfort of home or a cab. Because there’s no travel time, he can participate in more things he’s interested in. Garrett’s XtremeAg peers, Kevin Matthews, Matt Miles, and Dan Luepkes are less enthusiastic about digital meetings.
In North Carolina, Kevin Matthews really missed in-person field days during the 2020 growing season. “That was a really big blow not to get to meet and learn from that,” he says.
“To tell you the truth, when this thing first started, I decided I wasn’t going to be a Zoom guy,” admits Miles of Arkansas. “Heck, I can barely turn on a computer, much less get on Zoom, but after it kept going, I kind of had to learn to do that. I’m a much better Zoom guy than I was.”
Dan Luepkes is also more comfortable in the shop or his fields than behind a computer. Other than to stay in touch with fellow Xtreme Ag farmers, “I’m not too interested in a Zoom meeting. I’ll be waiting until things return to normal where I can go to a meeting,” he says.
Carie Marshall-Moore, a North Dakota farmer, has a love/hate relationship with virtual events. Now that meetings are virtual, she’s had the opportunity to try things without committing a lot of time or money. She’s connected with resources in Ohio and Canada she’d likely never have access to, prior to the pandemic. Joining new groups is pretty low risk these days, Moore says. If she’s not finding value in the meeting, it’s easy to just get off the call.
Attending from the convenience of home has a negative side though, she explains. Seminars and conventions used to be a refreshing time to talk to other adults and step away from the farm. Most meetings she attends now are free. Not being as invested in the event makes the distractions of kids, household chores, or other electronics more tempting. “When I go to a meeting, I probably retain 80% of it. Virtually, it’s probably 50% or 60%. I don’t think I’m getting as much out of it,” she says.
Other ways to learn
In South Dakota, Lee Lubbers is determined not to let the pandemic slow down his learning. To supplement the online events, Lubbers commits to a lot of time to online reading and research. He also plans to “make the best of the situation” by taking advantage of some extra time in the shop and picking up the phone to talk to farmer friends.
Miles and Matthews kept gatherings small and have hosted a few meetings on their own farms when larger events they were looking forward to got cancelled.
Ag podcasts have also seen a rise in popularity over the last year.
In addition to video calls and webinars, Garrett sees Facebook and Twitter as “very powerful tools for networking.” Even before the pandemic, farmers were using Facebook groups like My Job Depends on Ag or hashtags like #AgTwitter to connect with one another. Farmers have also created communities with their peers and the public on Instagram, YouTube, and most recently, TikTok.
At the start of the pandemic, Ohio farmer Jane Marshall was overwhelmed by the political and pandemic-related posts filling her social media feeds. A self-proclaimed people person, she was looking for a positive place to connect with people and escape negativity while social distancing. So, she started a public Facebook group called Building a Solid Foundation. Only positive posts are allowed. The group has grown to more than 500 members, including many who work in agriculture. Recent posts include videos of pets playing in the snow, well-trained cattle dogs loading a trailer of bulls, and a child playing with farm toys in a bathtub of snow.
For Marshall, the group has been a source of encouragement and creative outlet. Early in the pandemic she hosted several live cooking and sewing demonstrations on the page. During a season of personal challenges, she says it has been a good place to go to put things in perspective.
“This is a hard time for everybody. Surrounding yourself with positive things can make a bad situation a lot better,” Marshall says.
While some farmers are spending more time online than ever, others aren’t interested, or face burn out. A recent Agriculture.com poll asked, “Have you been attending webinars and virtual events to learn from ag product and service providers?” About 30% of respondents selected, “No, and I don’t plan to participate in any.”
In Alabama, Chad Henderson is optimistic that current events may cause people to connect more locally. “Maybe it will draw farmer neighbors closer together on what they’re doing and not doing. Before, you figured out what they were planting or what was going on when they went to the field,” he says. “It might be a good thing from one aspect of it.”
From California, Erik Wilson has moderated the My Job Depends on Ag Facebook group for more than five years. The group has grown to include more than 94,000 members. It’s time-consuming, and he volunteers “out of love for the industry.” When the pandemic began to shut things down in his area, he realized he needed to prioritize what mattered to him the most – his family.
“Moderating My Job Depends on Ag, there would be moments when my kids would be talking to me and I would look up and realize, I didn’t hear a thing they said because I’m reading a comment. I had to realize, I have to give these kids 100% more of my time when we are going through all this, so I got off Facebook for an extended period of time. I deleted all the apps off my phone for quite a while, just to refocus,” Wilson says.