Social media is influencing what consumers think every day, which has led many producers to get involved with the conversation.
With that in mind, Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin held a specialized training session to help dairy farmers create a proactive communication plan using social media strategy to increase visibility.
"This training is part of the Dairy's Visable Voice curriculum," explained Shelly Mayer, PDPW executive director. "It is part of PDPW's plan to provide at least 60 days of educational programming for our members each year. We need training so we as farmers can communicate with consumers, and so we'll be able to speak up more effectively and work with media.
"We have new tools today that we can add to the ways we communicate. The people in this class are here to learn ways to be more strategic in their communications and to learn how to utilize those new tools."
Consumers are hearing conflicting messages about farming every day, and the training was intended to help farm families make sure farmer voices are heard above all the chatter.
Some of the participants are already utilizing social media to share information about their farms but were there to learn how to be more strategic with their messages. Others were there because of expansion plans for their farms and wanted to learn how to communicate better with their neighbors. Still others wanted more ideas for how to react to negative videos posted on line about agriculture.
"With increased scrutiny on the food system from media and consumer groups, dairy producers must be prepared to communicate in a sincere and professional manner," Mayer said.
Renea Heinrich, a former Alice in Dairyland who grew up on a farm in Dodge County, led the communication and social media workshop.
Heinrich walked participants through the hands-on session and stressed the importance of developing a communication plan that includes pre-preparation for an on-farm business crisis.
"We as an industry have not brought the consumer along as the dairy industry modernizes," she said.
She offered ideas for bringing the community and consumers up-to-date on modern dairying and said social media is one tool, but there are other ways, too.
"Don't overlook the day-to-day interactions you have," she said. "You can make a difference. Even a conversation with a stranger on an airplane or in an elevator can have a big impact."
Heinrich offered an example of a dairy farmer who described his family's farming business while visiting with a woman sitting next to him on an airplane. He did not realize it at the time, but she was a reporter with a major newspaper in New York and when she returned to her office, she did a positive story on the modern dairy industry.
"There are always things going on in the news that are negative, but there are good things too," she said. "We need to make sure to share the dairy industry's good news."
One of the attendees, Lauren Holterman, works with a cheese company and emphasized that the perception of farms trickles outward.
"We rely on the success of our dairy farmers who supply the milk for our cheese," Holterman said. "We want to do our part to help farmers improve the public perception of their businesses."
Denise Behnke is married to a dairy farmer and is employed at Bou-Matic. She said companies serving the dairy industry also need to join in the effort to help relay the story about modern agriculture to consumers.
Heinrich says building relationships is important and it takes time. "Whenever you build a relationship, you must start with your ears open and your mouth shut."
PDPW is doing that right now, Mayer said. The organization is in the midst of brainstorming sessions around the state, listening to their members to determine what they want out of their organization.
Heinrich says effective communication is not providing statistics and facts and scientific data. She says the first step is to develop consumer trust. Once the consumer trusts the farmer, they will be satisfied with any information they receive from the producer.
She stressed the importance of sincerity and advised, "Don't promote or make a statement unless you personally really believe it."
She also mentioned the importance of communicating with other farmers. Noting that there are differences in farming methods and farm sizes, Heinrich said it is important that farmers stick together and relay the same positive message.
Often farmers themselves disagree about the appropriate size of a farm and about what they believe is the appropriate method of farming. Heinrich says groups that are out to do away with animal agriculture will help fuel that fire by pitting farmers against each other.
The "divide and conquer" strategy used by these groups only leads to confusion among consumers.
One of the things participants in the training session wanted to learn was ways to maintain an open-door policy and be transparent, while still having the ability to carry on business in a normal way.
They pointed out that visitors stopping in unannounced on a farm may misunderstand some routine tasks on the farm such as vaccinating cows or dehorning. Also, just as humans get sick at times, so do cows, and a person who is ill would not want friends dropping in unannounced to visit.
The women compared an unexpected visit on a farm to an unannounced visit to their home. People like to know when visitors are coming so they can pick up things in their home and make it neat. The same is true in a barn.
Safety is also a concern when it comes to unannounced visitors. When cattle are moving around and skid steers or tractors are moving through the yard and barns, it may not be safe to have people walking around.
Heinrich suggested telling unannounced visitors, "We're really glad you are here, but right now is not a good time because our employees are feeding, and it may not be safe for you to be in the barn as they move around with their equipment."
She suggested further explaining that cows are creatures of habit, and the presence of humans in their barn may prevent them from moving through their routine calmly. Offer to set up an appointment for a visit at a time when there is less activity on the farm.
Some participants wanted to learn new ways to communicate with neighbors. When a business expands, for instance, neighbors might not understand it is to enable the family to bring in another family member as a partner.
Heinrich said this is one more reason why it is important for all farm families to build trust. It takes time to build relationships, but in doing so, when the time comes for changes on the farm or expansion, that trust will be there.
She suggested maintaining a presence in the community by getting involved in organizations and youth activities.
"Put the human element into your communication plan," she said. "Show your neighbors that your farm is made up of people. Consumers don't mind that you have a large farm. They are more interested in the reason for the farm being large. They want to know that it is made up of people.
"Share what your business has to offer the community. People trust people, not things."