Twitter has been credited with everything from promoting democracy to predicting the stock market. So it’s not surprising to hear that, along with other forms of social media, Twitter is bridging the gulf between farmers and consumers — a goal of environmentalists since Henry David Thoreau went to Walden Pond.
Critically, social media has buoyed the small, non-commodity farmers suffering most from the parched conditions.
Take Harvest Moon Farms, for example. The 35-acre organic operation in southwest Wisconsin, owned by Bob and Jen Borchardt, has suffered horribly from the drought. Recent rains came too late to save the Borchardts’ greens, their principle crop.
Tweets cannot restore lost crops, of course, but they can help leverage dollars and other aid. The Borchardts are staging a string of fundraisers called “Drought Aid 2012” — beer tastings, restaurant specials, a benefit concert — to recoup some of their losses. A friend, a Chicago photographer named Grant Kessler, has assembled a social media campaign behind it. He created a webpage for a beautiful video Bob made and publicized it all via Twitter and Facebook.
“The video and the donate button on their website was immediately successful,” says Kessler. “In the first 10 days, it garnered $10,000 through the website alone. This was heavily supported by Twitter and Facebook posts that directed people to the video.”
If you want to know the latest on the drought, one of the best places to eavesdrop is the Twitter feed “#drought12.” The unfolding conversation reads like an agricultural support group, with farmers from different regions comparing notes on how best to cope.
Here, for instance, is a sample of the #drought12 feed on August 8:
What our crop or non-crop is looking like tiny.cc/gnuqiw #drought12
— Jennifer Campbell (@plowwife) August 8, 2012
spider mites in Oxford #Soybean #drought12 pic.twitter.com/e8paDzp1
— Maurie Clayton (@maurie_c) August 8, 2012
Big hands or small cob? #drought12 pic.twitter.com/LQ5wpbwk
— James R. Briggs (@jimbriggs1) August 8, 2012
99* in Lincoln, NE. #drought12 pic.twitter.com/LQ5wpbwk
— Carl Horne (@CNHstar ) August 8, 2012
Looking at a forecast of rain is like staring at a hot girl in front of your wife. You do it even though you know it’s wrong. #drought12 http://ow.ly/cP5Ip
— Matt Davis (@MDDavis89 ) August 8, 2012
You might call Twitter a rain gauge, helpline, and agricultural forecast, all rolled into one.
All kinds of farmers contribute to the “conversation,” including small ones like Mark and Kristin Boe, who operate La Pryor Farms in Ottawa, Ill. They raise purebred pork on homegrown, non-GMO corn — although a recent hailstorm badly damaged their corn crop. Kristin has featured the storm and the drought in her Twitter stream:
#drought12 conditions persists in IL . . . Pic of #hail damage from Fridays storm. #Corn leaves completely shredded. pic.twitter.com/eaFtBQev
— La Pryor Farms (@lapryorfarms ) July 16, 2012
Been in IL, IN, OH, WV, VA, NC, SC, TN, KY & Southern IL…ALL #corn is tasseling & is under extreme stress. #drought12
— La Pryor Farms (@lapryorfarms ) July 12, 2012
Just announced today…LaSalle County, IL approved for emergency haying and grazing of CRP land #drought12
— La Pryor Farms (@lapryorfarms ) August 6, 2012
In another industry, Boe’s candor might be considered a questionable business practice. Tell your customers about your problems, immediately and in detail? Donald Trump has fired scores of apprentices for less.
Boe, on the other hand, sees the candid talks as a way of involving customers in day-to-day farm life.
“People get to see, hand on hand, what we’re experiencing and how it affects the livestock,” Boe says. “For instance, we bought two heifer calves. I tweeted, ‘Help me name Calf 2.’ Somebody I didn’t know suggested a name, and she started following us.
“Not everybody has the opportunity to take time off work to come up and visit the farm. Social media is a way to get them involved without being here physically.”
“A human face”
Besides using social media to attract aid, farmers are using it to post real-time reports from the fields to educate the public about the extreme conditions so that it doesn’t abandon local farms.
This season, the staff of Wellspring organic farm in West Bend, Wis., has been using social media to explain to their 110 shareholders why their CSA boxes look different than usual. Although they use Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as their principle tools, they regularly upload videos showing conditions in their strained fields. Likewise, their Facebook posts go into extraordinary detail. Here’s one from July 11:
Drought conditions are rivaling 1988! Farmer Alissa and our crew have been turning out exceptional produce for our shareholders and farmers market but the truth is, that without rain, this may not be able to continue as it has. Several CSAs did not deliver last week — some due to the holiday, others because they couldn’t produce enough for their boxes. Farmers markets are seeing empty booths where produce farmers were … One of our ponds this year is BONE dry! The good part of this drama is that as a teaching and educational farm for future organic farmers. Our interns are getting the lesson of a lifetime that should help them in their future careers. The bad part is that the mild winter didn’t kill off pests that are now at a level we haven’t seen in a very long time! The wildlife of groundhogs and bunnies are desperate as everything is dried up in the wild. They have found our “buffet” of greens, and they are eating for their survival. Folks, the truth is that the next few months will be very trying. … Farming right now is tougher than it has been in a very long time. Keep all the farmers in your thoughts and truly appreciate every onion, squash, tomato, etc., that your farmers are intensely working to put on your table!
This is just one update of many written by Angela Rester, Wellspring’s executive director, who asks that her staff use social media as often as possible. In fact, this year she bought Flip video cameras for all of her staffers.
“When it comes to something like the drought, words alone can’t describe it. People need pictures and videos so they can see it, see what’s actually happening. So in that sense, social media has given us a human face.”
It’s tempting to parse the ironies of that statement — Twitter a human face? But Rester sees social media as a way — a fast, effective, low-cost way — of expanding her customers’ perceptions during what can only be called, in the parlance of our times, a very bad business cycle.
“We have to tell people what’s happening on the farm so they don’t make assumptions. They [may] think you got the rain they got when you got nothing!”