If you have access to the Internet, can operate a keyboard and have not yet set up a Twitter account, it’s about time you did. At least that’s what dairy producers across the country are saying, including Ray Prock, Jr. of California, Will Gilmer of Alabama and Rose Hartschuh of Ohio.
Twitter is described as a social networking and micro-blogging website that allows users to post, send and read 140-character messages. Users can view regular updates from one another by selecting a “follow” button on another’s profile.
To link to another’s profile from an individual tweet, Twitter users put the “@” symbol in front of the person’s username. To make searches simpler, users add the hashtag symbol in front of key words.
Here’s an example of a consumer-friendly tweet from DialDairy, the Twitter account of Hartschuh:
“It’s a quiet evening on the #farm. The #moo cows are happy, which makes us happy. Taking good care of our animals is a top priority.”
The message is one of many that Hartschuh, who farms with husband Greg on his family’s fourth-generation dairy operation, has posted for the purpose of educating neighbors and curious consumers globally.
The Hartschuh family’s first step in social media was a Facebook fan page, and the creation of a Twitter account, along with a blog, followed shortly.
They’re not the only ones who are a triple-threat, so to speak. Both Prock, milking 500 cows, and Gilmer, milking 450 head, regularly blog and post updates on Facebook along with their tweets about life on the dairy farm.
“Twitter is a quick, easy way to get your message out,” Prock says. “Blogging and Facebook require a little more time to maintain.”
All three dairy producers began looking more seriously at social media because of webinars or presentations through farm groups like Farm Bureau and Dairy Management, Inc.
“I was hesitant at first,” Gilmer admits. “But just seeing how many people use it made me see that as an industry, we need to go where there’s an audience.”
While all three social media gurus recognize some producers may be uncomfortable with technology and may fear backlash from anti-agriculture users, they believe anyone willing to share their dairy story with others should become a Twitter user.
“The more dairy producers that start telling what they’re doing, the more it will resonate with consumers,” Prock says. “People will start to realize that a farmer caring about and taking good care of cows is the norm, not the exception.”
“Those animal activists are the number-one reason why the dairy industry needs to be using social media,” she said. “It’s essential that we’re out there, promoting our message, instead of our consumers getting their information from someone else.”
Gilmer said he tries to use any kind of debate with opposing viewpoints as an opportunity rather than an argument.
“I do my best to stay civil and stick to the facts,” Gilmer says. “I’ve come to realize that I’m not really debating with someone to change their mind. I’m responding for the benefit of the other people in the public forum who haven’t yet made up their minds.”
The only real drawbacks of social media sites like Twitter can be avoided with proper privacy settings and time management, say the farmers.
“What you say can be used against you later,” Prock says. “You really need to pay attention to what you’re saying.”
Users on Facebook and Twitter are able to make their profiles or updates only visible to certain people. In addition, they can block another user at any time they feel uncomfortable.
When it comes to privacy, Prock says there’s an easy rule to follow.
“If you don’t want something seen, don’t post it,” he says.
Time management is a little trickier. All three dairy producers seem to agree that once you start logging onto Twitter and Facebook, it’s hard to stop.
“It can be very addicting,” Gilmer says. “Just ask my wife!”
Both Gilmer and Prock say they usually check e-mail and Twitter in the morning and when they come in for lunch. They’re also regularly using their smartphones to access the Internet while they’re in the parlor or out in the field.
Gilmer says he’s learned that if he wants a particular topic or link to be seen by the most amount of people, he will post an update in the mid-morning.
Part of the learning curve with social media sites like Twitter is figuring out how it works best for you and your operation, says Hartschuh.
DialDairy usually has an updated Facebook and Twitter page about three or four times a week and a new blog entry about once a month, she says.
Gilmer says he tries to post something new on Twitter or Facebook at least once a day and tries to update his blog and website about once a month.
Prock also “twitters” daily and hopes to update his blog more frequently, as much as once a week.
So does all of this “tweeting” and posting and updating really work? Absolutely, according to success stories from the three farmers.
Hartschuh says her family’s Facebook fan page has gone from three fans since it was first created to more than 100.
Gilmer says he has received comments from the nonfarm public in addition to fellow producers about his blog posts and updates. Those without an agricultural connection told Gilmer that he didn’t fit the stereotype they thought of when talking about a dairy farmer.
Prock was honored to be chosen as one of the top five most influential social media users in his local community, and he’s even more honored by the fact that he’s the only person in agriculture from that group.
Need more proof Twitter is a powerful tool? On August 2, Prock and Gilmer helped a fellow farmer achieve a lofty goal. That day, Mike Haley of Ohio posted this tweet, “My Bday Wish: to get #moo to trend Today at 1:00 EST (10:00 AM PST) to show everyone’s support of #family #dairy #farms.”
Haley wanted #moo to be one of the top-10 most talked-about topics on Twitter. He got his wish. Over a six-hour period, #moo was mentioned in more than 6,000 tweets by 3,000 unique users.
Even days later, agricultural producers are still using #moo, and consumers want to know why. Their search will lead them back to Haley’s original tweet about supporting family dairy farms.
And in today’s economic condition, that support is more important than ever.
“Dairy farmers have a lot of perseverance,” Gilmer says. “But a big part of staying in the industry is public relations, and by using social media, we have a great opportunity to keep public opinion in our corner.” PD
Emily Caldwell is a freelance writer from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.