Farming goes to Facebook

1/31/2014

By RENÉE JEAN

By RENÉE JEAN

rjean@gctelegram.com

When Shayne Suppes looks at the out-sized equipment it takes to run a family farm these days, he sees bugs. Giant stink bugs, in fact.

The latest and greatest of these is a shiny red "stink bug" with a wingspan of 100 feet and wheels nearly as tall as Suppes. It's actually a sprayer, and in use it looks like an upside down airplane gliding over the field. Suppes is intrigued by the comparison — he's interested in what the outside world thinks about farming — but he still sees the buggy headlight eyes.

"Let's call this one Buggles," he says affectionately and laughs, patting his new sprayer on the side.

"Buggles" has a GPS unit hooked up inside her glass-enclosed cockpit, and that little gizmo is just one of many examples of high technology today's family farmer must embrace to survive.

Family farms have had to grow to stay in the game, a reality dictated by the market place and prices for the wheat and sorghum the Suppes family grows. Their farm is now a 10,000-acre operation — but the number of hands has not really increased. They've had to step up the pace, get more from each acre. Each year, wind and temperature define a hard-edged and sometimes exceedingly short window of opportunity to work 1,000 or more acres of territory in a single day. With the GPS unit, they can cover more territory more quickly and more accurately, Suppes explains.

"We don't steer these things ourselves any more," he says. "We let the GPS do it. That helps you with your efficiency and productivity. It keeps the stress level down, too, because you're not looking all around while you drive, trying not to skip anything."

He could purchase software to run the machines without a human operator, but he still rides in the cockpit. There's a safety issue, he feels, and, he'd rather just employ a person. Suppes doesn't want the farm to get any larger if he can help it, however, so he and his family are constantly looking for ideas to squeeze more from each acre. In winter, when things are a bit slow, Suppes attends conferences, looking for new ideas. And since going to the recent Wheat Industry Leaders of Tomorrow (WILOT) conference in St. Louis, he's come home with another gizmo he believes may be critical to the future of family farms — Facebook.

"Farmers are known for being secretive and quiet," he said, "and they don't like people to know about what's happening."

That could work against them, however, in a world where thousands of public discussions are taking place across social media every day, shaping public opinion on things like genetically modified food, organic produce, and more. A rising tide of negative messages are appearing in some venues online, and farmers haven't been representing themselves very well in those venues, Suppes says — himself included.

"Farmers are less than 1 percent of America," Janice Person said. "That makes it hard for their voice to be heard in that whole conversation."

Person is the social media director for Monsanto, and the presenter Suppes heard at the WILOT conference. She believes a lot more farmers need to be out there telling their stories, and she's happy to hear that Suppes made a Facebook page for his farm.

"Fewer and fewer of us live on farms," she said. "We may see them in our area in places like Garden City or Scott City, but we may not have any firsthand experience with them."

But everyone's on social media and online, looking for information about the subjects they care about — information that is not always accurate. Farmers need to be in the mix, Person says, to help clear up misunderstandings, be part of the main street debates taking place online.

"Everyone really cares about food," Person said, "and especially today, when you see more Americans have maybe gained more weight than we'd like, and you're looking for solutions for what can you do to eat better and help your children eat better. These are things we all care about."

Sharing things about the farm on Facebook — even if it's just a picture of a wheat farm at sunset — can help open a window on the food world the farmer has to live in.

"It prepares an opening for the relationship," Person says, "so they know who to ask when they have bigger questions about agriculture."

A public page for a farm can be administered from a personal profile page while being completely separate from it. That allows you to control what goes to the general public and what stays on the personal page. This type of page also lets you appoint others as administrators. That way the upkeep isn't all on one person.

"You don't have to post like five times a day," she said. A post or two a week can be plenty to keep your farm in the loop. And the page can be placed on a business card, giving you an easy Web presence to connect people to your farm later.

Person recommends agchat.org as a place to get more tips about managing social media.

"People want to understand," she says, "but because they don't have a background in agriculture, they are really vulnerable. If you are already an active member in the community, they trust your voice. They may not be hearing that voice because you're not sharing it with them, but social media gives you a way to do that."

Suppes is the fourth generation of his family farm, and he's excited to tell the farm's story of tradition and progress on Facebook. Staying on top of all the new things — new technology, new science, changing markets — is a full-time job in and of itself, so he knows finding time to keep up with a Facebook page will be a challenge. But he believes it's important for more family farmers' voices to be heard in the Main Street discussions taking place online. He hopes others will join him in such efforts.

"Feeding the world would be my slogan if I had one. That's what we're really out to do. Every farmer feeds 155 people plus you. We have to maintain a sustainable food source to feed the world," he said. "In the next few years, we're going to add 2 billion more people to the world. That's 9 billion people. Now that's a scary thought. How are we going to feed all those people? That's a question we all have to answer."

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