How does a cattle rancher, horse breeder and alfalfa farmer from rural northern California wind up with 51,000 Twitter followers?
Jeff Fowle says it didn’t happen overnight or by accident.
Through a relationship he already had with Ray Prock, a fellow animal health and welfare committee member with the state Farm Bureau, Fowle wound up meeting two other American farmers – Darin Grimm of Kansas and Mike Haley of Ohio – through social media.
In early 2010 those relationships blossomed into the Ag Chat Foundation, a non-profit organization aimed at empowering farmers and ranchers to leverage social media as a tool to tell agriculture’s story.
Fowle was simultaneously building his early followings on Twitter and Facebook, and was writing a blog at http://commonsenseagriculture.com/ where he shares life stories and thoughts on a variety of topics – some light-hearted and uplifting, some thoughtful and some that bear the frustrations of a rancher trying to eke out a living in California’s regulatory climate.
“The four of us had a collective vision and laid out a plan,” said Fowle. “Our plan at that time was not to reach a certain quantity of people, but more to form positive relationships with a high quality follower.”
Gaining the “high quality” followers Fowle wanted meant building relationships with respected names that already had a large following, such as McDonalds and Dominos.
“Through those relationships our base grew,” Fowle said.
Fowle’s philosophy is about building relationships through conversations that ebb and flow rather than dictate and throw “talking points” around in a politically-charged world. It’s evident in his posts that talk about life on the farm and share everyday thoughts.
“In my opinion it’s all about having conversations,” he said. “There are people out there who legitimately have questions and want to understand what we do and why we do what we do.”
Fowle believes about 80 percent of the population simply has questions and wants to understand without picking a fight. There are about 10 percent, he believes, who simply use social media to argue.
Fowle learned early on that those looking to pick a fight via social media were not worth his time.
Social media is pretty simple, Fowle says. For the average farmer or rancher, simply sharing what they’re doing is all most people are interested in.
“Twitter is really unique,” Fowle says. “When one of my tweets would get shared by one of these key people all of the sudden hundreds of thousands of people saw it, not just my 100 followers at the time.”
Fowle’s purposeful approach to social media was important to this end. He simply could not rely upon his own limited network of followers to propel what he was saying to a larger audience. He needed a boost, so to speak.
That is why he initially focused on communicating with key groups who had large followings.
“The more they shared what we were saying and the more we would share what they were saying – that’s when my following base exploded,” Fowle said.
During the first two years of his effort Fowle spent many hours each week online. He, along with fellow “agvocates” (that’s the term coined for those in agriculture who advocate for their industry) likewise spent hours each week building their online social media followings by telling stories and responding to questions.
“When I first started we had clear objectives that we worked for two-to-three years and devoted hours each week to social media,” he said. “After that initial investment we were able to back off and just let it happen naturally.
Fowle’s objective has changed since he first started. No longer does he set aside specific time to communicate a message. Instead of targeting an audience for growth, Fowle is now simply going with the flow.
“I’m now to the point that I’m simply sharing what I’m doing and it’s getting out there,” he said.
Social media becomes "organic"
Fowle continued: “I’m not focused on social media anymore; I let it happen. It’s become organic.”
Fowle’s efforts have done more than just build his own following or propel Ag Chat into a once-a-week opportunity for folks to ask questions of those in agriculture and have them answered via Twitter. Countless other “Agvocates” as they’re called have joined the ranks of social media to chime in and tell their Ag-related stories in blogs, on Facebook and 140 characters at a time via Twitter.
There is also a continual learning process of those already involved to learn issues and how to communicate them through social media.
“We, along with many others, laid a strong enough foundation that moved American agriculture into a social environment and opened a lot of doors,” Fowle said.
Fowle admits the early enthusiasm about agriculture’s jump into social media was hesitant at best, that reluctance grew into acceptance “and now there are thousands of farmers and ranchers of all ages, across the United States using social media,” he said.
Agriculture’s use of social media isn’t without its challenges, according to Fowle. While it’s easy for people and groups to post a social media page, remaining above the fray and the online-shouting matches remains important.
“The challenge going into the future is, we have those in agriculture – that 10 percent – that are looking for the fight, just like in the general public who are looking for the fight,” Fowle says. “You can’t look at them. The 80 percent in the middle are looking to have conversations and discuss things and learn from each other. That’s where the conversation needs to remain.
Fowle continued: “If you go into the conversation with the objective that you’re going to change the person’s mind you’ve lost in my opinion. That is essentially the same as looking for the fight.”
The point, much like farming, can be seen in how Fowle defines “sustainability.”
“To me it’s what I’m doing right now – what my neighbors are doing,” Fowle says. “We’ve been farming and ranching here for over four generations. We can make a living off the land and the land remains productive.”
The same holds true for building a sustainable social media following. That’s not to say that conversations can’t become heated or passionate at times, Fowle cautions. Nevertheless, a focus on maintaining a productive conversation is vital.
“Sometimes you can still have heated and passionate discussions, but there’s still a shared respect among those in this group,” Fowle continued. “Opinions on food and Ag production are like fads; they’re here today and gone tomorrow – they’re like diet plans. In the end the practices that are sustainable will survive.