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3 Open Minutes with Jessica Peters

Progressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley Published on 24 August 2018

Dairywoman Jessica Peters works on her family’s 275-cow Jersey dairy in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She regularly keeps Spruce Row Farm’s 5,000-plus social media followers up to speed with straightforward, hold-nothing-back, tell-it-like-it-is farm updates.

Jessica PetersProgressive Dairyman Editor Walt Cooley interviewed Peters to discuss her social media stardom and why she thinks her special approach to social media works.

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You have a unique approach to social media. How would you describe it to others?

PETERS: I just share with people what I am feeling when I am feeling it. A lot of what we do looks really bad, as a friend told me once. The optics of agriculture can be kind of horrible – until the public understands what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.

Explain an example of ‘bad optics’ found in the dairy industry.

PETERS: I live on a main highway, and 10,000 cars go past my house every single day. Someone sees almost everything we do. We are very aware of that.

Recently, we had an issue with our baleage. We were not getting quite enough calcium to the cows, and we had a couple cows in the middle of their lactation go down in the freestalls.

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Well, you know when a cow goes down in a freestall, the only way to get her up is to put a piece of plywood or a pallet on a skid steer, tie her down on it and carry her to our special-needs group, which is a bedded pack where she has better footing and where we can take better care of her. But what people see is a cow tied down and being forcibly moved against her will.

The first post I made a couple of years ago was part of a series I called “Why I’m mean to my cows.” In it, I explained a cow is a 1,000-pound animal I’m not going to be able to carry anywhere, and I need to quickly, efficiently and safely get her to a space where I could best take care of her.

It was such a lightbulb moment for people. They thought, “Oh yeah, well, if that cow weighs 1,000 pounds, how else are they going to move her? I know I can’t lift 1,000 pounds.” They wouldn’t reach that conclusion on their own without an explanation because that is not a problem most non-dairy people have to deal with.

Doesn’t a blog post title like ‘Why I am mean to my cows’ make some in the industry cringe? How have you had success with such a unique style?

PETERS: Social media isn’t meant to be perfect. It’s to make us look a little flawed, to make us relate to other people. I think that is what I do.

I don’t have a lot of spare time, and the free time I do have, I want to spend it doing things I find fun. A big chunk of our country doesn’t care about agriculture, so why are they going to follow me if it is not fun? I feel if we can make it fun, they will watch because it is entertaining, but they will also learn something while they are watching. That is my entire motto: Make everything I do fun!

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How do you talk about low milk prices and this year’s challenges? That’s obviously not a fun topic.

PETERS: I just did that the other day, actually. I was just real about it. You don’t have to show them your milk checks or tell them how much money you are losing a month. People don’t understand our business situation until you explain it. For example, people see we have a lot of big equipment.

To them, they think that means I am a millionaire. That is agriculture. Again, this is our optics problem. We look like we have a lot of money to spend because we are so asset-rich: We’ve got 400 acres, five big tractors, a self-propelled hay mower. To others, that looks like I’ve got a lot of money to spend. You’ve got to explain how that doesn’t actually equate to money before you see lightbulbs go off.

How much time do you spend on social media?

PETERS: It definitely varies. I’m not as organized as others. Generally, if you see a post I’ve written, it’s been done within the last half-hour. My videos take a lot of time. I put quite a bit of thought into those. The average post is about something that happens immediately, and I snap a picture I think is fun and post it to Facebook within 20 minutes – or as soon as I have service.

You recently shared a video about a calf dying suddenly on your farm. Again, that’s not something you hear most dairy farmers on social media talking about. Why do you share updates like that?

PETERS: I guess my emotions just grabbed me. If I am feeling something deeply, I need to share it. I do most of the milkings on our farm, and it gives me a lot of thinking time. I use that time thinking of how to word it and how to present it and what I want to say, and then I’ll get two minutes and record it. Honestly, if I am not feeling something, I don’t post it.

You recently created a farm nursery songbook that has been popular online. Tell me the story behind that.

PETERS: It started with my 4-year-old nephew who lives in Florida. He comes up to Pennsylvania three or four times a year. He absolutely loves the farm. Two years ago, he was into a songbook with the words of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Mary Had a Little Lamb” rewritten about construction equipment. I thought, “That is genius. I could totally do that about our farm.” I wrote one song called, “The Big Loud Shiny Chopper,” and was singing it to him. It didn’t take him long to pick it up and sing it back.

So I wrote some more, and made 10 books through an online store, and sent one to my nephew and some of his friends. They loved it. So I went online, and found a publishing page, and submitted it as a random work of fiction. A week later, the company said they wanted to publish it. It has actually sold out twice on Amazon now.

You’ve faced some attacks from activists. How do you approach dealing with online activists?

PETERS: You have to have a thick skin. The very first video I did, I got attacked. It was partly my fault, but I got hundreds of activists attacking me. That hit me pretty hard. I spent three or four days pretty much sitting on the couch drinking chocolate milk feeling sorry for myself and thinking I wasn’t ever going to post on Facebook again.

But you know, I also got so many positive messages saying, “Keep your head up. I love what you are doing.” Now, I don’t even read negative comments anymore. I block and delete. That is what I tell other farmers to do.

What is something you now know about social media advocacy you didn’t know when you started?

PETERS: The one thing I cannot stress enough is: Do not get emotional, especially in responding to comments. It is one thing to get emotional in something you post, but when you do get a mean or rude comment and you feel emotional about how to respond, quit, walk away and come back. You calling someone a name or responding emotionally in comments just makes you look bad.

What would you like to see more dairy producers who are already on social media do more of, less of or differently?

PETERS: I know this is hard to do, but be yourself. A lot of people, when you turn a camera on them, they turn into the prim-and-proper professional version of themselves. That is not what social media is. Social media is meant to be social. It is meant to be personal. It is meant to be you. Those who get that are the people who excel the most at social media, I think, and I think that is why people likely relate to me so much. end mark

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