Farm groups turning to Web to burnish image

Reuters News

10/15/2011 11:13:46 AM - Reuters News

By Carey Gillam

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - October is a busy month for Kansas farmer Darin Grimm. With 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans to harvest, the third-generation family farmer is running a combine nearly dawn to dusk.

But he still makes time to tweet.

Whether it's touting the benefits of a new fertilizer, sharing photos of a newborn calf, debating genetically modified crops or discussing modern-day hog farming, a growing legion of farmers and ranchers like Grimm are increasingly turning to Facebook, Twitter, and personal web blogs to try to connect with consumers, educators and others about agriculture.

"We all eat," said 37-year-old Grimm, who helps run the 18-month-old AgChat Foundation, teaching other farmers how to use online social media to tell their stories to a sometimes skeptical public.

"Food is important to everybody but very few people produce that food," he said. "We farmers need to connect with consumers ... whether it's a mom in New York or a teacher in Chicago."

Calling themselves "agvocates," these tech-savvy farmers and their supporters are hoping their efforts counter images of animal abuse, environmental damage and health problems that have become associated with industrial agricultural practices.

"There are lots of perceptions about what I do. I would like to have a voice in that perception," said 31-year-old Mike Haley, who keeps his Twitter followers up to date as he plants soft red winter wheat on his Ohio farm.

The fight for hearts and minds in agriculture on the Web is also being taken up by agribusiness in a big way.

A new organization backed by some of the most powerful corporate names in agriculture hopes to swing public opinion with a mix of social media and conventional marketing methods.

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which boasts Monsanto, the world's largest seed technology company, and DuPont, one of the world's biggest chemical and seed producers, as members, has a multi-year agenda.

The aim is to address consumer attitudes and opinions about food production by farmers, ranchers and their suppliers.

"We've sensed some concerns ... about what is going on about food safety and food quality," said communications director Ken Colombini at the National Corn Growers Association.

DuPont, which has contributed $500,000 to the effort, said the need for such a dialogue was "glaringly obvious."

"There is a growing disconnect," said Bill Even, DuPont senior manager of biotech and regulatory affairs. "People have lost touch with modern agriculture. This isn't an event. It is more of a process, more of a movement."

With more than 50 national, regional and state agriculture groups as members and a projected budget above $11 million, USFRA has hired a veteran marketing expert as general manager and begun national advertising and marketing efforts.

Last month the group debuted an online "Food Dialogues" townhall-style discussion and website project, and the group has a list of bloggers and others seen as influential voices targeted for the ongoing campaign.

A recent sampling of some of the queries posted to a USFRA Food Dialogue website covered a gamut of issues, from a request that USFRA members disclose the amount of government subsidies they receive to complaints about "factory farms."

There were posts relaying concerns about nitrogen fertilizer run-off affecting the Gulf Coast and waterways, worries about antibiotics and hormones given to livestock, a question about funny-looking carrot sticks, and even one query from someone seeking the "best method to build a grain drill."

The organization acknowledges up front the animosity obvious in many of the postings about farming. "When did agriculture become a dirty word?"it asks on its website.

For some critics, agriculture is not the problem, but the practices of certain players are.

The fact that some of the key players in USFRA are opposed to food labeling proposals, yet are saying they want to communicate more openly with consumers, particularly rankles.

"They want to tell consumers how their food is produced, well, let's really tell consumers how their food is produced," said National Organic Coalition Director Liana Hoodes.

"It's great to have a dialogue," Hoodes said. "We hope it will be an honest dialogue."

(Editing by Peter Bohan)