Sometimes – a lot of times – engaging with consumers feels like an uphill battle. Farmers active on social media get cruel and disparaging comments on a regular basis from activists. Some, like Andrew Campbell, withstood outright threats.
“Really, at the end of the day, what they wanted us to do was quit and not have that conversation,” Campbell said.
But this devoted young farmer and communicator isn’t a quitter. “If we’re going to have the conversation with consumers, we have to tell our story.”
Campbell and his family milk Holsteins and grow corn, soybeans, wheat and hay in southern Ontario’s Middlesex County. He also owns Fresh Air Media and can be found on Facebook and Twitter as the FreshAirFarmer.
He wanted to be a “big-time news man,” but his first job was in a town of 3,000 people and he discovered “that was too big a city for him.” He pretty quickly decided that moving back to the family farm was what he really wanted. He kept his media roots, though, by speaking to groups like the 2016 Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit about the importance of connecting with consumers, and actively blogging and documenting life on the farm.
In 2014, one of Campbell’s friends said she wanted to learn more about the food she bought for her family, but, she told him, “I can’t do a Google search for answers about farming practices without being bombarded by organizations with an agenda. I know it’s not right, but it’s all I’ve ever heard.”
On December 29, 2014, Campbell decided to take action: He vowed to take a picture of life on the farm every day of the coming year.
News outlets got wind of his decision and it wasn’t long before Campbell was making headlines:
“Tweeting farmer truly a breath of fresh air”
“Farmer Tweets His Life on the Farm”
“Ontario farmer to tweet a farm photo every day in 2015”
On January 1 at 2:30 a.m., Campbell posted the first picture. It was a perfect example of farm life: a momma cow sniffing her newborn calf.
“By January 3, I had poked the bear – the bear being the activist community,” Campbell said. “They weren’t content that it was 100% positive [for agriculture]. We saw the North American activists come on to the blog for 8-10 hours a day. And we saw growing aggression and attacks.”
They started attacking his wife with their messages too. The whole farm – the whole family – had been brought into the discussion.
“A lot of farmers think, like we did, why would I put myself in this position?” Campbell told a spellbound crowd. “Why don’t I focus on the farm?
“I learned at this point how helpful farm organizations can be,” he said.
The Ontario and national farm organizations contacted Campbell and helped him develop a strategy for his farm. He talked with suppliers, too, about allowing only marked vehicles on the farm and being observant for people or things out of the ordinary.
“I think if we hadn’t had these calls before that threatening message of ‘We’re going to find your farm,’ I don’t think I would have continued,” Campbell said.
Life Goes On
Campbell did continue, though, and he learned some important lessons (see sidebar). Despite attacks from activists, his compelling photos touched thousands of consumers who otherwise wouldn’t have had any understanding of, or connection to, agriculture.
He said the majority of the activists got tired and moved on to their next campaign.
“There were a few that hung on, but they got bored and realized I wasn’t in it for the fight,” he said.
“People don’t seem to understand the food system and they are getting their information from everyone but farmers,” said Yvette D’Entremont, blogger and science advocate also known as the “Sci Babe.”
D’Entremont encourages farmers to bridge the gap by reminding consumers that farmers are also consumers, and show photos when possible, like Campbell did.
“If we’re going to have the conversation with consumers, we have to tell it,” Campbell said. “Being honest, truthful and passionate to help consumers make the choices they want to make is how we as farmers can push these online activist trolls to the sidelines.”
Campbell believes farmers need to be the positive source consumers want to talk to. The friend he mentioned earlier was tired of feeling bad about eating meat. In fact, after following Campbell’s photo diary, she felt much better about agriculture and food. She posted, “I’ve been buying meat and eating butter under a cloud of guilt for too long.”
“Seeing is believing and connecting with people is essential,” D’Entremont said. She also feels it’s important to incorporate humor in blogs or articles you want people to read.
“Trust is the most important thing,” said Jay Byrne, CEO of V-Fluence as he discussed how to get agriculture’s story heard in the media. He believes the key to being heard is to be clear and concise, avoid negative language and convey to people that they have choices.
Campbell doesn’t think of himself as a hero, although in the eyes of many farmers, he is, because he stayed the course even in the face of adversity and outright danger.
“I entertain myself by using social media,” he said. “I’ve found more and more consumers are interested in where their food comes from. Every tweet I post needs to keep in mind our core audience of that food-buying young mother: What is she interested in and how can I give her the information she needs?
“People want to know this information,” Campbell added.
Note: This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Pork Network.