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New technologies, Twitter, reshape how farmers work and connect

Electronic monitoring collars at Bridgewater Dairy. Photo | Ben French
Electronic monitoring collars at Bridgewater Dairy. Photo | Ben French

With 75,700 farms, 800 food processing plants and roughly 1 million employees, agriculture pumps $93 billion into Ohio's economy every year. All the while, farmers are producing more variety for consumers, doing it more economically and doing it on fewer acres than ever before. How?

Waste-saving controls and satellite communications have produced combines that can "drive themselves" and tell their operators where they are in a field -- to within an inch.

Advances in biotechnology have produced hardier animals and healthier grains.

And information technology has made it possible not only to get the daily market report from a Blackberry in a strawberry field, but to share information with an extended community of farmers and consumers.

"Twenty-five or 30 years ago, we didn't have the ability through the monitor systems and sprayers. . . to really look and see exactly what (herbicides) you were putting where," says John Davis, a Delaware County corn and soybean grower and president of the Ohio Corn Growers Association. "You just kind of threw it out there and did the best you could. You've got the ability now through computers and other types of GPS products to place the product (only) where it's needed."

Davis began using satellite systems six years ago to avoid wasted fuel, seed and chemicals -- and to monitor yield. At harvest time, his ability to map a field from a computer in the cab allows him then to more accurately address conditions that cause uneven production.

Davis says technology not only has changed his daily activities, but what he produces.  He's been growing a "low linolenic" soybean -- one with no trans fats -- for the past half-decade.

"The McDonalds, the Wendys, the KFCs, have gone to demanding that oil because it's much healthier for the general public."

Cross-state in northwestern Ohio, Chris Weaver is moving old Bessie -- and 2,999 of her sisters -- using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Weaver, partner and operations manager for Bridgewater Dairy in Montpelier, has equipped each of his Holsteins with a chip-embedded collar.

"She comes in the (milking) parlor, and the parlor recognizes that she's there, and it weighs her milk production," Weaver says.

Weaver says that when milk production decreases, it usually means an animal is ill. The RFID collar allows him to immediately pull a sick cow aside to care for her.

Three thousand cows translates to a lot of you-know-what -- but Weaver has added a twist to his manure management plan: a digester. Installed in 2006, the digester converts manure to methane and methane to electricity.

Weaver points to several benefits. First, the converted manure can be used as a dry, comfortable bedding for his cows. Second, the odorless manure can be spread on his fields without bothering the neighbors. And third, the methane can be used to power a generator -- producing 500 kilowatts an hour and shaving thousands off the farm's monthly electric bills.

While technology has transformed production methods, it's also transforming the way farmers connect to others. Consider the rapidly growing cadre of Ohio agriculturalists using social media.

"It has an appeal for farmers because it's a great way to connect with a consumer without having to go through the (traditional) media," says Dan Toland, an Ohio Farm Bureau Federation communications specialist instrumental in educating farmers about Twitter, Facebook and other tools. "They're finding it's a great way to get their message out."

Indiana-based ag advocate Michele Payn-Knoper agrees.

"One of the downfalls we have in agriculture is we're not really good at telling people what we do" at a time when fewer people live on farms, she says.

Payn-Knoper has observed a new willingness among farmers to tell their own stories -- and an eagerness to connect with each other. Every Tuesday evening, 100 to 200 farmers from around the world use Twitter to participate in her two-hour Ag Chat, an online conversation on various ag topics.

"Over a two-hour period, we see anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 tweets."

One of Ag Chat's frequent participants is Mike Haley, who claims the largest number of Twitter followers of any Ohio farmer -- more than 6,400.

Haley, a Wayne County grain producer who also manages 30 head of Simmental, says he began using social media last year after attending a Farm Bureau meeting of young agricultural professionals. There, he says, he learned about the tactics being used by anti-livestock groups to spread misinformation.

He says the beauty of social media is that they can be used to connect directly with people who know nothing about farming issues -- without the filters that often exist.

Witness the Facebook page "Yellow Fail," created by farmers outraged by Yellow Tail's $100,000 donation last year to the Humane Society of the United States -- an organization they say misleads the public into thinking donations go for animal shelters when, instead, the focus is elimination of animal agriculture. (Haley acknowledges that "I'm doing most of the tweets from that account.")

Haley says social media are also an ideal way to connect with farmers who pursue, as Payn-Knoper puts it, "a fairly lonely business."  Haley has built a database that other farming tweeps can mine to connect with others in the industry.

Finally, social media is a tool to do what motivates every farmer -- making a living.

Bill Bakan runs Maize Valley Market and Winery in Hartsville. His official title is "Fun Tsar." He writes a blog and uses YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to build and maintain his brand.

Baken says when you get down to it, "everything turns out to be market driven" and all business is about relationships. Social media is about building and maintaining them.

"Word of mouth is powerful," he says. People "are more likely to believe a comment posted on Facebook or something on Twitter that they have from a friend, fan or follower than they are about something pushed out from a PR firm."

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