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Farmers all a-Twitter with social media


May 30, 2011
By The Canadian Press

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NEWS HIGHLIGHT

Farmers all a-Twitter with social media

On most days, Trevor Herrle-Braun jumps on his
tractor and performs one of the new tasks that have become part of daily life
on the farm.

May
30, 2011, Waterloo, Ont – On most days, Trevor Herrle-Braun jumps on his
tractor and performs one of the new tasks that have become part of daily life
on the farm.

It
has nothing to do with planting or harvesting or managing everything that comes
with running a rural business. This task is done with BlackBerry in hand and is
instantly shared with 1,200 of his followers.

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“Help
us with our opening … What is your #musthave product when our doors open on
June 8?” he blasted out recently on the social networking site, Twitter.

Within
minutes, dozens of excited customers were tweeting back, telling him everything
they hope to see on the shelves of Herrle’s Market when it opens in a little
less than a month.

“It
adds the personal touch and puts a face to the business,'' Herrle-Braun said.
“That’s the biggest comment I’ve heard back from people. They feel connected to
our family, which makes them trust us a
bit more, and that’s huge in the agricultural setting.'”

It’s
a kind of interaction farmers have rarely had with their customers, save for
the short face-to-face conversations on market day, and one that has been on
the decline since supermarkets pushed many further away from their food
sources.

But
local farmers are increasingly reconnecting with the public in a way that
they’ve never done before. And it’s starting with a technological revolution
that seems far removed from the rural life many city folk envision.

“It’s
allowing for an attachment for the consumer directly to the farm constantly,
which wasn’t there before,” said Steve Martin of Martin’s Family Fruit Farm,
which now has more than 800 Twitter followers on their MartinsApples Twitter
account.

Martin
started tweeting last year and quickly gained followers after posting a series
of tweets under the hashtag #AppleGrowthStages that chronicled the growth of a
Macintosh apple on their farm.

“People
like to think of the Old MacDonald’s farm and it isn’t quite like that,” he
said. “We’re not Old MacDonald with three cows and six chickens, but we’re
still human and we’re still families and still farms do what farms have always
done, which is providing good, healthy food for their communities.”

They’re
also the only farm on this year’s Buy Fresh Buy Local map that mentioned its
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages in its ad.

For
those who have bought into the benefits of social media, tweeting about life on
the farm and responding to others interested in what’s happening there has
become a frequent task.

Herrle-Braun,
for example, is rarely without his BlackBerry and his new PlayBook. He updates
his followers on everything from what he does in off-season downtime to a
friendly rivalry fostered with other local farms when the Leafs and the Habs faced
off, to what produce is being planted and in season.

His
recent #ChickTweets, a series of posts that included pictures of a flock of
pint-sized chickens the family is raising, quickly became a favourite of
followers.

“It
really creates that connection between the rural and urban,” he said. “People
don’t always necessarily know what goes on in the country.”

So
why does something so seemingly traditional and rural mesh well with something
many deem high tech?

Peter
Katona, sales and marketing manager at Martin’s, believes it has a lot to do
with the rise of the “buy local” food movement and the connection people are
looking for with their food and the producers.

“It’s
a very personal movement and I think what’s driven it is, consumers want this
relationship with their food,” Katona said. “Social
media is about relationship-building. Savvy farms recognize that this is a
tremendous opportunity to personalize themselves, their business and their
crops.”

It’s
also an issue of trust. You’d be hard-pressed to find an industry where trust
matters more than in the food industry. Both Herrle’s and Martin’s said the
kind of one-on-one relationship building they’ve developed through social media
has both been surprising and immensely beneficial on that front.

If
customers have a complaint, it can be addressed right away and on a personal
level. If there’s a compliment, it’s public and shared around among trusted
acquaintances online.

“I
think this is a great way to bring people into the 21st century,”
Martin said. “Everyone understands that things change, and they change here,
too. It doesn’t mean that the important things have changed.”

The
obvious other advantage for a small, family-based businesses is that social
media is free and only requires the time of a type-happy tweeter.

Herrle-Braun
is just that. He’s been jokingly dubbed “thunder thumbs” by some of the other
farmers and has, though he’s reluctant to admit it, become a bit of an expert
on this kind of small business marketing.

Research
In Motion has also taken notice of his use of the PlayBook and BlackBerry for
farm operations, he said.

“It’s
opened up a whole pile of doors and connections with other businesses,” he
said. “It really has been amazing.”

Many
of the local farms on Twitter frequently interact, and even help promote each
other through the medium.

Last
year, Herrle’s and the Milton, Ont.-based Springridge Farm set up a
Twitter-based contest, each offering up a $25 gift certificate to the other's
business to encourage customers to try out other producers.

“It’s
great for us for networking and supporting other farms,” said Niki Hilton,
Springridge’s social media manager who frequently tweets from Springridge’s
19th-century barn. “It’s really been a great support network for us that way.”

Springridge
recently launched a social media campaign to get their locally produced Royal
Wedding marmalade to the feted nuptials in London. They ended up with a willing
volunteer who carried their product all the way to the gates of Buckingham
Palace to snap a photo. They also snapped up more followers in the process.

“We
can tell our customers are communicating this way because they’ll be here and
be tweeting that they’re here and snapping up pictures of the wagon rides,” she
said. “I had a lady here last summer that tweeted, ‘Hey, I'm out by the goats.
Wanna say hi?’ She just wanted to let us know she’s here and she's following
us.”

Martin
said they have no idea just how long social media will be an effective tool for
their business. It’s hard to predict how things will change and how consumer's
habits will be affected.

However,
he said, it should come as no surprise that rural businesses are picking up on
the idea and seeing such success with it.

“Apple
and BlackBerry both took our stuff, mind you,” the fruit farmer said with a
chuckle.