My new favorite thing about Wednesdays

My new

When I joined Twitter in college, one of the first communities I joined was #agchat. Here was an online group of people in agriculture, coming together once a week to talk about different topics related to food and farming. Out of that experience, I made some amazing friends, got to travel to new places, and had one of my first event planning gigs.

After I graduated, I became less and less involved with #agchat – mostly because, when I moved to Minneapolis for work, I felt less and less connected to the agricultural world that I grew up in. It was a community I was familiar with, but really no longer felt a part of. When I stopped participating, though, my Twitter activity overall became almost non-existent.

About six months ago, I found myself wanting to find that bond of community online again. I started posting on Twitter. I started following people. I started reading and sharing interesting articles. But I was still flying solo in a world that thrives on making connections.

Then, I found #bufferchat.

#bufferchat is run by (not surprisingly) Buffer — a start-up company that creates software for scheduling social media posts. I stumbled upon them in a Fast Company article and was intrigued by what they are trying to do as a transparent company with no managers and positions like “Happiness Heroes.” I set up an account and gave them a follow on Twitter. I figured that’s where it would end. However, #bufferchat turned a random follow into full-fledged engagement.

Similar to #agchat, #bufferchat is a weekly discussion on Twitter where thousands of people from around the world come together to talk about the week’s topic. Last week it was about building your reputation online. The week before that it was about using digital tools to stay organized. It’s always facilitated by the Buffer team (and sometimes there’s a special guest), but it’s not marketing spin. It’s a true discussion. It’s fast-paced. It’s engaging.

And it’s my favorite part of Wednesdays.

Just like I’d felt with #agchat, #bufferchat has helped me re-discovered the purpose of a social media tool like Twitter. It’s there to facilitate conversations, to help make connections with others, and – just maybe – create a community where you can build true relationships.

Hope you stop by for #bufferchat some time. There’s a great group just waiting to say ‘hi’.

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Lessons from Pixar: Technology won’t fix a bad story

If it’s possible for companies to have “fans”, I would definitely be a “fangirl” of Pixar.

Now, I’m a self-diagnosed Disney child, so of course I love their movies. But despite loving Toy Story and Finding Nemo just as much as the next person, the true reason that I’m a fangirl is not about their products. It’s about their philosophy.

I was reading a great article this morning on Fast Company called “Building the Next Pixar”. The author interviewed several people who have since moved on from their time at the animation studio (turns out, that group is actually pretty small) and gathered their insights on what it is about Pixar’s business philosophy that makes them such an enigma in entertainment and such a gem for their employees.

You can read the entire article for the full list, but one of my favorites is “Story Drives Everything.” Now, I’ve heard this mantra from John Lasseter before – in the (great) documentary, A Pixar Story – but I love it every time I hear it. The fact is, there have been times when Disney movies weren’t very good (the 1970s-1980s, late 1990s-2000s). A lot of people tried saying that animated movies were a dying genre and that computer animation killed traditional animation. Neither is true. The real problem was that the stories they were trying to tell really weren’t all that good. If you look at the great Disney and Pixar movies – whether it’s Beauty and the Beast or Toy Story – it’s obvious that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the story.

In my line of business (advertising/marketing), we often face the same challenge. From social media to Google Glass to SEO to apps, technology to reach people with the latest product/service/cause is always changing. Print is dead (or maybe it’s not). Social media is dead (or maybe it’s not). The vehicle for the message keeps changing.

Which is when we have to remember that the technology is irrelevant, unless it helps us tell our story better.

An example of using technology to enhance a story is what we’re doing for our clients with video. Now, I work on animal health business, which tends to be quite technical and not always that interesting. But we have a great group of veterinarians and cattle producers who are using our products to help raise healthier cattle – and that’s a story worth talking about. So, we’re using video to better tell that story than maybe we could through print or social media.

Below are two of my favorite videos we’ve done for my client in the past year:

What It Takes – Prevention Works Verified

Trust Triangle – Carlton & Carlton Ranch

Whether it’s for work or if you’re a farmer/rancher trying to tell the non-farm community about what you do, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the technology available out there to communicate. Take a tip from Pixar, though, and remember to first and foremost focus on your story and making sure it’s something the people you’re trying to talk to care about. Who knows? You could have a blockbuster on your hands.

Missing a friend and a great teacher

Growing up as a teachers’ kid, you quickly learn what makes a good teacher. A good teacher encourages you to think, challenges your beliefs and opinions and helps you gain more knowledge than you ever thought possible.

Chris Raines was a good teacher.

Dr. Chris Raines, 1981-2011

Now, I never sat in Chris’s classroom, but I know this is true. See, like so many others, I met Chris online through his Twitter “handle”  @iTweetMeat. From the get-go, I knew this guy was smart and witty. On so many occasions, he challenged my comments when he could have so easily passed them by. One of the first interactions I remember was when I made a comment about how farmers shoudn’t be held responsible for people who get sick from raw milk, because they knew that danger was there. Chris automatically came back at me, asking if that meant meat processors shouldn’t be held responsible for food poisoning because people should just cook it all the way? It was instances like this where he forced me to re-examine my beliefs, look at them from another angle, and learn something along the way. That’s why I know Chris was a good teacher in his “real life” job as a meat science professor at Penn State. I think he did things like that with his students every day.

Last night, Chris lost his life in a car accident and the online community of “AgChatters” and “Agvocates” lost a great friend. It’s amazing how close of a relationship you can form with someone in the digital space. I’ve spent my day randomly bursting into tears, despite the fact that my actual, in-person interactions with Chris were few. That doesn’t matter, though, because I will always remember his ability to teach us all, while making us smile at the same time. He will be sorely missed.

How much of a dialogue was it?

Like what seemed like everyone else in the agriculture world, I watched the Food Dialogues conversations both online and in person last Thursday. In addition to tuning in for the Washington DC panel, I was on the St. Paul campus at the University of Minnesota for a viewing party. I’m not sure whether my expectations for the event/day were high or low. The only thing I knew was that the day would pave a path for the future of USFRA (who organized Food Dialogues) — whether that path was challenging or smooth was what needed to be determined.

I’m not going to recap the whole conversation, because I think that’s been done and you can find recap videos on FoodDialogues.com. What I will do is add to the collection of observations, hoping that input from throughout the farming and non-farming community will continue to stretch our ability to interact.

Words matter. If we’re not using the right ones, we’re not having an inclusive dialogue.

I had a friend once tell me that they hated the phrase “need to be educated.” To her, educating someone is a one-way street. You don’t know something, and by darn, the other person is going to tell you exactly what you should think. It’s not interactive.

On the same token, the term “consumer” is one that automatically separates groups into an “us versus them” mentality. This is especially true in agriculture. Consumers are “those people” who consume goods (in our case, food products) without knowing or caring where they came from. “They” know nothing about farming.

Throughout the entire Food Dialogues conversation – both across the country and in the room where I sat in St. Paul – these words and phrases were abundant. We need to educate consumers. The answer to our problems is consumer education about modern farming methods. If we just talk with consumers and share our stories, we can educate consumers about what they don’t understand.

This drives me nuts.

If we don’t place priorities on using language that is interactive and inclusive, we’ve missed the whole point of a dialogue. We haven’t listened. We haven’t learned from each other. And we won’t change anything. Words matter. As the Food Dialogues movement moves on, we have to remember that or we’re wasting our time.

Reach beyond the choir. Did we do it?

There was a great push to have farmer involvement in the USFRA dialogues, both online and in person. I think this is great. However, from my observations, what was missing throughout the entire day was those on the other side of the conversation. Farmers were in abundance both in the audience, online and on panels, but I feel like the voice of the typical, everyday food purchaser was missing. Where’s the college student who has no money, but is trying to eat more than mac and cheese? Where’s the mom who dreads taking three kids into the grocery store, but knows it needs to be done? While we had a panel of experts who were friendly to agriculture, there was a noticeably absent voice from everyday America. In my opinion, if we just continue to talk to ourselves, this “movement” is not a movement at all. Rather, it’s just us taking four hours out of our day to make ourselves feel better.

A step in the right direction, but miles to go.

Overall, I thought the Food Dialogues were a step in the right direction. The agricultural community opened themselves up to a wider audience and, I think, genuinely wants to be a part of the conversation. However, if we don’t open ourselves up to the hard topics and genuinely have a dialogue about those, we’re not going to build any bridges. Someone described coverage of controversial topics on Thursday as infomercial-like. I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The same old talking points were covered multiple times. Only once did I hear someone say, “I’m going to talk about this on a personal level…”. I’m not saying we have to have an “I’m right in using _______ (fill in the blank with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, etc.)” answer – in fact, I’d rather we didn’t. I’m saying that we need to be able to to converse about those issues without throwing up the defensive wall and genuinely ask people why they hold the beliefs they do.

In order to continue having successful dialogues, conversations need to be filled with inclusive language and people on all sides of the food system. We also all need to have the understanding that every single one of us won’t have the same opinion — two small farmers have different ideas, two large farmers, two organic farmers, two butchers, two professors, two moms. We all come to the table with different beliefs and experiences. That’s why the root of conversations needs to be, “Why to you believe that _________?” and the question needs to be followed by genuine listening from all participants.

These are just my thoughts, though, and I know lots of people have already blogged about their feelings. Check out Michele’s and Jeff’s posts for some different opinions. What did you think about the Food Dialogues? Was it a step in the right direction? Was it the same old, same old? I’d love to hear others thoughts and keep the conversation flowing.

AgChat conference perfect for college aggies

Since I recently graduated from Michigan State (Go Green!) and just took an awesome full-time position a couple of days ago, I’d like to think that I’ve done a pretty good job at preparing for “the real world” and that I can offer some halfway decent advice to college students and recent graduates. My big piece of advice today for those college aggies out there: apply for the AgChat Foundation Agvocacy 2.0 Social Media Training Conference!

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Ideas from our friends in the north!

For the past two days, I have been at the North American Leaders Session, which is a meeting hosted by the Center for Food Integrity designed to bring together leaders of livestock coalitions from across North America to meet and share ideas. Now, you’ll notice that I said North America and not just…well, America. We were really lucky to be joined by a group of great folks from Canada that shared some of their projects and challenges. You may or may not be surprised, but their challenges aren’t much different than ours here in the States and they brought some awesome ideas to the table.

Now, I tweeted about the fact that the Canadian contingent is doing some amazing things related to consumer-outreach and some people on Twitter expressed interest in what those ideas were. In an effort to both share some of those things with you and as a way for me to remember them 🙂 here’s some of the ones I found extremely interesting:

Farmers Feed Cities
This is a program mainly funded by the grain organization in Canada, but has implications for all farmers. Somewhat like the “Farmers Care” program in Michigan, Farmers Feed Cities is designed to raise awareness and education about how farming affects all of us, not just those in rural areas. What I liked most about the program was the material promotions that they’ve put together. They’ve done what I think is a great job with getting the notion of “Farmer Feed Cities” in front of a lot of people. They even gave us a window decal that I fully intend on putting in my car and a pin that’s going on my backpack! You can learn more about what they’re doing on their website, Facebook page and Twitter account.

Ontario Farm Animal Council (OFAC)
Throughout Canada, there are Farm Animal Councils. The Ontario branch has done a couple of projects that I thought were really neat. They have put together a 40+ page booklet about Canadian agriculture (which is not all that different from the US) called “The Real Dirt on Farming” that they’ve distributed all through the province. It goes to media members, legislators and–something a little different–doctors and other offices. The booklet covers a ton of common topics and is very good at promoting and explaining all types of agricultural production.

They also have created a website where people can take a virtual tour of farms, which range from egg producers to pig farms and orchards. Heather Hargrave, who works for OFAC, said they’d like to get to the point where they produce a modern/conventional, organic and grassfed video for each species that helps show the differences and similarities between different production systems.

Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan (FACS)
Saskatchewan’s branch of the Farm Animal Council has done some great projects promoting the message that farmers care about their animals (and subsequently the environment and their families). They partook in a very large billboard campaign throughout the province (the largest agricultural media campaign in North America) with the simple message “On our farm…we care.” Billboards featured young farmers and farm families in a variety of animal industries. They partnered with a photojournalist who took the photos, which helped the promotion of the message through journalism circles and built great partnerships with the different commodity organizations to get them done.

They also chose to put together a puppet show–Tales from the FACS Farm–that is used in elementary schools throughout the province to teach kids about animal agriculture. Adele Buettner, who works with FACS, said they hesitated at doing this because they’re not big fans of talking animals (humanizing them) in any way, but also said it ended up being a great choice because of the educational value. They work with a professional puppeteer company and put on the shows at as many schools and libraries as they possibly can during Education Week.

Sometimes we forget about how important it is to get fresh ideas to promote our industries and build trust between food producer and food purchaser. This chance to hear from other people in the US and Canada was a great opportunity for me to think about what we can do in Michigan and throughout the ag industry across the country.

Do you have any neat projects in your state or country that promote agriculture to non-farmers? What do you do? How do you secure funding? Have you done any projects that crashed and burned?!

Farm Fresh Food? Yes, please!

You probably read the title and thought “Farmers markets? Locavore? Gardening?”. Well those are all great things, but I’m actually talking about the newest blog sharing farmers’ stories in Michigan! The ‘Farm Fresh Food’ blog launched March 1 and is a great way for agriculturalists in the state to share their stories.

Hosted on MLive.com, the blog will feature posts from farmers in all segments of Michigan agriculture. Topics will range from on-farm activities to how a busy mom can clean out the pantry. It’s really a great way to show the diversity of both Michigan agriculture and Michigan farmers (surprise – they’re just like most people in a lot of aspects!).

I would encourage you to check out the blog at http://blog.mlive.com/freshfood/index.html and leave your thoughts in the comments section. I can’t wait to see what people think and I look forward to all the agvocating that these farmer-bloggers will be doing!

**Note: If you’re a Michigan farmer (large or small!) who would be interested in blogging, let me know!