The father of one of our employees used to say that he was born 100 or 200 years too late. He wanted to be a pioneer, to paddle a canoe for Lewis and Clark or work on the first transcontinental railroad.

After his wife died, he was confounded by the mysteries of the microwave, the TV remote and the answering machine. So one day when he threatened to set up his camp stove in the kitchen, our employee said to him, “It’s not too late, Dad. Be a pioneer. Learn how to use the microwave.”

Sometimes we need a nudge like that in agriculture.

Today most farmers use computers, the internet, cell phones, smart phones, perhaps even PDAs like tablets or notebooks. But when it comes to Social Media, many still lag behind. That may mean they are missing great opportunities to interact with and educate the public, not to mention promote their farms and their products.

Let me ask a simple question to see how Social Media Savvy (SMS) you are. What do the 2010 Person of the Year and the 2010 Word of the Year have in common? Here’s a hint: the Person of the Year is Mark Zuckerberg and the Word of the Year is crackberry. If you knew the answer even before the hint, congratulations, you are SMS. If even the hint has you scratching your head, you may need some help getting comfortable in this relatively new world of Social Media. But first, let me answer the question — Mark Zuckerberg is the founder and CEO of Facebook and a crackberry is someone who is addicted to his or her smart phone.

I don’t know if I’m a crackberry or not. Certainly I’ve never done what one farmer does who flips his steering wheel forward on the tractor and lets the GPS navigation take over as he sits back and Tweets. And another admitted on a national TV program that he’s glad his church has poor cell phone reception; otherwise he’d Tweet through the entire sermon.

While I may not qualify as a bona fide crackberry, my comments about Social Media are serious. As Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), one of my jobs is to be a spokesperson for agriculture. I’m learning more and more each day that I must use Social Media to do that most effectively. I’m learning this from my children, age nine and five. 

My daughter, who is in the fourth grade, recently came home explaining how much she loved a new application she used on an ipad in class and asked when she could have her own Facebook page. Suddenly I realized that Social Media is here to stay.    

Being used successfully

I admire many ag groups and individuals in Virginia who are using Social Media so successfully. When I judged the Excellence in Agriculture Contest at the Virginia Farm Bureau convention in November, our state winner stood out because of their successful usage of Social Media. Their names are Chris and Jennie Simms, and they use Facebook, Twitter and other social sites constantly and have their own blog at www.agtually.com. Just recently at the American Farm Bureau Convention in Atlanta, they went on to win first place in the nation.      

Their blog provides an avenue for sharing the positive stories of agriculture and rural life, while also addressing some of the common misconceptions about agriculture. Chris says, “With less than two percent of the U.S. population involved in farming, we have to take our stories directly to the consumer.” For them, a blog provides the perfect outlet for sharing these stories.

Recently he wrote, “In a nation where 79 percent of the adult population 18 years and older is using online media sources for communication, research and shopping, it is imperative that we in the agriculture community do a better job of reaching the public through all online avenues. Whether it is a blog, Facebook or Twitter, social media is quickly becoming the primary means for connecting with the public.”

Chris and Jennie have found that Facebook provides an avenue to the general public while Twitter provides an avenue to more industry people. “The key to utilizing social media is to develop your network,” he says. His advice: Start with friends, family and current customers and grow from there and be sure to include your Facebook and Twitter addresses on all of your promotional materials. 

Steve and Jordan Berryman, a young farm couple in Surry County, say they have seen a positive increase in business for their seasonal vegetable and agritourism operation as a result of utilizing Facebook to stay connected with their customers. They post daily updates on what is happening on the farm and what vegetables are available for sale at their stand each day.

Jo and Rob Pendergraph of Mankintowne Specialty Growers in Powhatan, Va., use Facebook in their wholesale business. They post updates about what is in season each week, then chefs at restaurants, clubs and caterers e-mail their orders. They combine new technology to promote their products with old-fashioned customer service as they deliver each order personally.

As in any frontier, the boundaries are being pushed back every day as new forms of media come onboard. And sometimes farmers adapt new concepts to unique agricultural applications. Take Agcaching, for example.

The Simms and the Berrymans both participate in this take-off on Geocaching, a high-tech treasure-hunting game played worldwide by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers — geocaches — outdoors and then share your experiences online. Since geocaching takes people to new places they wouldn’t ordinarily visit, the Simms saw Agcaching as a way to highlight the diversity, history and important of Virginia’s largest industry, agriculture.

"Every weekend since we put it on the geocache website someone has been out to find it," Simms said. "People have also been purchasing produce while at the farm, promoting agritourism and becoming more exposed to farms," Chris said. The Berrymans also found that when people came to the farm to find the AgCache, they purchased products and enjoyed some of the agritourism features while there.

Is this your great-grandmother’s farm? No. In fact, if she’s still alive show her this column and see how many words would baffle her: online, smart phone, geocaching, crackberry. She may remember when radio was new and the USDA used it to communicate market prices and weather information to farmers, however. Tell her it’s the same thing, just the 2011 way to make farming more profitable and to communicate its significance to the non-farm public. Chances are she’ll support you 100 percent. (And maybe learn how to download a new application in the process.)