Every month 17 million people play Farmville on Facebook. Another 2.6 million have logged onto Netflix to rate the film “Food, Inc.” which casts a critical eye on the food industry and promises “you’ll never look at dinner the same way again.”
And then there are folks like Don Steinbeisser Jr., a farmer, Twitter user, a man in the crowded public square of social media without so much as a galvanized bucket on which to stand. If he’s sitting in a feed truck waiting to get loaded, Steinbeisser pulls his smartphone from his shirt pocket to see what’s being said about the crops he grows and maybe enlighten people about why he does what he does. Steinbeisser farms sugar beets, which in the United States are almost all genetically modified. He tells anyone willing to listen that sugar beets designed to survive spraying the herbicide Roundup aren’t bad.
“I just want people to know that we’re not out here trying to design 'frankenfoods,' or things like that. We’re actually making food safer,” Steinbeisser said. “The chemicals we're using now are 50 or 60 times safer than the chemicals we were using before.”
With 80 followers on Twitter, Steinbeisser is no Food Inc. But he is part of a growing movement by farmers to capture some of the media narrative about agriculture.
Farmers and cowboys readily acknowledge that their business is smarting from negative stories about animal treatment, food processing and “factory farms,” a smokestacks-and-cogs connotation that makes aggies bristle. Forrest Roberts, National Cattlemen's Beef Association president, calls the people disseminating those stories "informers," a relatively small group of about 5,000 people interested in food use as a resource.
Roberts told the Montana Stockgrowers Association gathered last Friday in Billings that it's important that farmers and ranchers enter the social-media stream and join the food conversation.
The beef industry needs to win over the next big generation of consumers, known as millennials, Roberts said. The future depends on it.
Millennials are the generation born between 1980 and 2000. They are 80 million strong, roughly twice the size of Generation X, which separates millennials from baby boomers -- the aging, post-World War II generation that because of its size has driven American shopping decisions for 60 years. Baby boomers number about 70 million.
Baby boomers are reliable beef consumers. Millennials are the next big wave of consumers, Roberts said. And millennials are now at an age where the eating habits they establish are likely to determine what they eat for the rest of their lives.
"We've got about five years to turn the tide," Roberts said. Price is important to millennials, but so is the way animals are raised and whether the environment has been negatively affected. Personal stories told by actual ranchers raising beef could be the difference.
“We have to tell our stories. Yes, consumers are asking more questions about where their food comes from,” said Lauren Chase of the Montana Stockgrowers Association.
The Stockgrowers hired Chase two years ago to help its members tell the Montana ranch story to an audience unfamiliar with agriculture. Fewer than two percent of Americans farm today, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s down from 38 percent in 1900. Because few consumers know anyone involved in agriculture, there is a growing disconnection with the general public, Chase said.
This year, the Stockgrowers launched its most aggressive social outreach yet. The group published a coffee table book about Montana ranching, complete with quick response codes for mobile phone scanning. The tags link smartphone users to online videos that compliment the book.
“My ultimate goal is to get this book in the hands of a random mom in Chicago that goes to the market to buy her beef and doesn’t know where it comes from,” Chase said.
Chase has her rancher board of directors posting on Facebook and Twitter, no small task given that the average rancher is pushing 60. The Montana Stockgrowers Facebook page is updated daily with photos and video. On Twitter, Chase is tweeting the rancher narrative 140 characters at a time. She is a big advocate of Pinterest, a sort of online bulletin board where members post recipes and other items of interest.
Pinterest appeals to women, who are still the predominant grocery shoppers in American culture.
“Pinterest is basically geared toward women. I feel like it’s a way for people to organize various things -- home decorations, clothing, and recipes. If we can get those beef recipes posted, make it appealing and easy,” Chase said. “If you want to talk about what a cowboy wears, put it on the fashion board. We need to reach out to people. We can’t preach to the choir.”
Since hiring Chase, the Stockgrowers have increased their Facebook followers threefold to 3,442 people. Their next goal is to get those followers to share the page with other friends.
“If everybody pushed the 'share' button to share our content, we have the potential to reach approximately a million people,” Chase said. “I’m trying to get everyone to hit the share button."
The one thing the Stockgrowers don’t do is blog. Chase said it’s hard to hold people’s attention long on the Internet. She prefers photos and video.
It was a viral video of an old dairy cow, unable to walk, being dragged through a slaughter plant by a forklift that prompted Mariah Shammel to start blogging her story. The video, which led to the plant’s closure and exposed a major source for school lunch meat, angered the public. It angered Shammel, too.
“Consumers are more interested now in what they’re eating and what’s going into their meals,” Shammel said. “As a mother, I’m always wondering about whatever I feed my son.”
The food in her cupboards are free of high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener regularly targeted by both groups concerned about childhood obesity and those concerned about genetically modified food.
Shammel’s blog, “The Kleenex Chronicles,” gives readers a ranch wife’s perspective on a life that’s both rewarding and arduous. A city girl who married into the farm life, Shammel has bad hay fever and never goes anywhere without a tissue in hand, which is the back story to her blog title. Her posts have been on hold of late as she adapts to motherhood, but she says she will get back into it if she can balance the blog with her ranch work and looking after her son, Colter. Her husband, Lyle, can use her help.
She also writes a column for the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.
She had blog followers from Washington D.C., and Nashville, and they are telling her they’d like to see more posts like this one about February calving:
“I still tend to spend the majority of my time talking to an eight-month-old and being on Little Man duty (or doody, more like it) so I can usually be found wrangling him around the house until he naps. And then I run outside to take care of our replacement heifers, feed the baby bulls and horses and check on the new pairs that have been brought up from down below. And sometimes, if I’m lucky, I even get a shower. It’s a big day when that happens!
"Luckily, Lyle doesn’t seem to notice the status of my clean or dirty hair since we see him awake for about 20 minutes each day. He has the night check on the calves so he gets up at 2 a.m., heads down to the calving barn (3 miles away) and stays there until his last check, which usually ends around 5:30 a.m. Generally, he isn’t able to go back to bed because after chasing cows around in the cold, he’s wide awake. But he tries, so he jumps in bed with his freezing body and lays there, telling me all about what happened on his check (that’s usually when the crazy cows come out). For the next hour he falls asleep in between waking up and telling me that he really needs to get up and feed the cows while I tell him to stop worrying about it and just sleep!”
What Shammel wants more than anything is for consumers pulling T-bones from the refrigerated supermarket case to realize that there are real people on the far end of the equation who care deeply about the food that’s raised.
“It’s important to know that as rancher, I’m concerned as well,” Shammel said. “They talk about corporate farms and think they’re going after the big businesses, the big corporations. In the agriculture community were always saying that ag is 98 percent family-owned.”