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Iowa Corn Growers Association
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Web options broaden reach of ag story

Posted on September 10, 2014 at 8:00 AM by Iowa Corn

There’s a new language for talking about agriculture’s big issues: #GMO, #organic, #local and #animalwelfare.

Consumers and farmers are communicating with hot-button Twitter “hashtags” like these, blog posts and photo-sharing apps.

But, face-to-face conversations at farmers markets, 5K races and grocery stores still make a difference in getting information to the 98 percent of American who don’t live on farms.

Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, government relations manager at Iowa Corn, took an all-of-the-above approach.

“This is truly the information age, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in simply information gathering,” she said.

“The key to communications is more than just acquiring knowledge, it’s efficiently and effectively sharing that knowledge with others.”

Where, when and how you say something is nearly as important as what is being said, she added.

Burns-Thompson grew up on a diversified family farm in Linn County and shares ag news for personal and professional audiences through her blog, large Twitter following and as a member of the Iowa Farmer Bureau Speaker Corps.

As an intern for an ag company while at Iowa State University, she was responsible for launching the business into the new world of social media.

“I still remember thinking how ridiculous it sounded to me at first. Who’s going to read a tweet about agriculture?” Burns-Thompson said.

The answer — millions of people around the world — surprised her.


The AgChat Foundation started on Twitter in 2009 to organize all those farmers and consumers. Now, 75 to 400 people join the group’s weekly conversations online.

Some are geared specifically for farmers, such as soybean harvest outlook. But, once a month FoodChat connects consumers and farmers on topics like school lunches.

“GMOs are always a hot topic, ag-gag laws, food labeling, biodiversity as a whole,” said Jenny Schweigert, AgChat Foundation communication director.

“We had a really well-attended chat on drones.”

The foundation also educates farmers on effective social media use.

At this past month’s Cultivate and Connect Conference in Austin, Texas, farmers joined Extension educators, food bloggers and dieticians to talk about “Five Questions You Need to Learn to Answer About Being A Farmer” and other issues.

“The amount of misinformation out there is staggering,” Schweigert said. “We need to connect and be proactive with stories rather than reactive.”

She said one farmer posted his contract with Monsanto on his blog in response to questions about strict seed standards.

It’s an “open-barn-door” approach to ag that applies to all farms, from large hog operations to small organic veggie producers, Schweigert added.

At the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, online community manager Zach Bader said they started efforts about five years ago to connect to consumers through a blog and social media.

“We know Iowa consumers have questions about food and farming practices and know they’re looking for answers to those questions online,” he said.

“We wanted farmers’ stories to be a part of that conversation.”

That involves not just broadcasting opinions, but seeking out people with questions.

The organization did a survey of Iowa residents, the Iowa Farm Bureau Food and Farm Index, asking consumers what they knew about GMOs and what they look for when buying food products.

Bader said responses showed farmer members how they can respond to critics.

For example, the study showed 84 percent of grocery shoppers would be influenced to buy GMO foods once they learn GMOs reduce pesticide use.

“That’s an opportunity for farmers to understand, ‘Of the many reasons I care about this, this is what consumers care about,’ ” Bader said.

At the same time, farmers are taking to social media, there’s still value in face-to-face interactions.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Speaker Corps, started in 1992, trains members each year on public speaking and how to talk to the media, said Public Relations Manager Laurie Johns. More than 200 farmers have participated.

These farmers invite food bloggers, community leaders and students to farm tours. Others have started alliances in their communities with pet shelters, food banks or Rotary clubs.

“They partner with community events like a 5K and bring chocolate milk or sponsor a pit stop — things they hadn’t thought of before, but a way to engage consumers,” Johns said.

And, the more farmers put themselves out there, the more people want to know, she said.

“There is an increase in demand for talks because more people have questions about food production, GMOs, antibiotics,” Johns said.

“There is an increase in demand for ‘Who is a farmer? Tell me what you do.’ ”

Johns sees that reflected even in the national interest in “The Bachelorette” contestant, Iowa farmer Chris Soules.

More larger-than-life farmers are featured at Hy-Vee grocery stores in the Cedar Rapids area.

Hy-Vee Homegrown, an initiative at eight stores, partnered with the Iowa Valley Food Co-op to put a face to the food in the produce aisles.

Cardboard cutouts of farmers stand by their tomatoes, kale, squash and sweet potatoes, all produced within 60 miles of the stores.

Courtesy Chris Morris, IFT
Producers are finding unique ways to connect with consumers online and face to face. Here, cardboard cutouts of local farmers greet shoppers at a Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee.
“We wanted to make sure the customers knew it was this farmer,” Community Relations Coordinator Kristy Staker said of the life-size cutouts of John Beal of Beal Fine Meats and Produce or Bob Vanous with Morgan Creek Farm Market.

“They’re the face behind the farm,” she added.

“You’ve got to be creative to some extent to get beyond some of the noise out there,” Bader said, whether that’s working with stores, writing or posting pictures online.

He described communicating about agriculture as an extension of being a good neighbor.

“For these men and women who do this for a living, they clearly understand the value of being involved in communities and being good neighbors. This is just another way of doing that,” Bader said.

Zoe Martin, Iowa Farmer Today

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