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Let’s pretend you see this status (based on a real Facebook post from a Midwestern community several months ago) pop up on your Facebook newsfeed as you are scrolling through updates one early spring evening:

“Last night, the farmer who grows 10-20 acres of crops in the field behind our house sprayed a substance that smelled like ammonia while we were eating dinner, causing us to rush to shut the windows. Still, my eyes were burning for hours, my throat was sore, and every joint in my body hurt! The kids were so miserable that we left the house…”

Although it’s not your farm, you’re a farmer and you feel the need to weigh in and provide your perspective on the matter. So, how would you respond?

Growing numbers

First, let’s take a step back.

You have likely heard that an ever-growing number of American farmers are embracing social media as a way to directly interact with consumers, a consumer much like the person posting the above status update.

In fact, agriculture is pretty social media savvy: A 2011 study by the American Farm Bureau Federation revealed that, of the 98 percent of farmers and ranchers ages 18 to 25 who have Internet access, 76 percent of them use social media.

That being said, to use social media most effectively, it’s important to carefully consider how to best respond.

Find common ground

So, before you craft your response and hit “send,” take a second to review these five tips:

1. Use shared values to build trust. Even people with seemingly opposite ideas can usually find areas of common ground.

For example, the person writing the status above is clearly concerned about her health and that of her children. Your family’s health and well-being is likely main concern for you, too.

So, instead of immediately defending the farmer, first use these shared values to form a connection and build the person’s trust.

2. Be reasonable. Now, say that one of the user’s friends comments on her status and says, “I feel for you. Get a petition going at minimum, either for organic farming or to set specific spraying times so everyone can be prepared.”

You could come back on the defensive, with reasons why that is not the answer, or you could be the voice of reason and offer other alternatives, such as encouraging the neighbor to ask to meet with the farmer and ask him to provide a heads-up next time he is planning to spray.

3. Establish yourself as an expert — carefully. When you feel passionately about an issue, it’s easy to immediately go on the defense and offer all of the reasons why someone is “wrong.”

Farmers know they care about their animals, the environment and the safety of the food they produce, so why don’t consumers always understand that?

Well, many consumers have never talked to a farmer.

Start conversations with phrases such as, “I understand your concern…” Establish yourself as an expert without being pushy by saying, “As a third-generation farmer…,” or “On my family’s farm…

4. Share your story. People love stories, and how food is grown and produced is an incredible tale that most consumers have not heard. So, tell them!

If you are a farmer, you might talk about your policies for spraying crops or provide reasons as to why crops are sprayed and how the consumer benefits from those activities. Let consumers know how your family got into farming, or about your connection to agriculture, and why you believe in what you do.

Share photos and/or videos. Pretty soon, you might have a pretty big fan base!

5. Search for opportunities to engage — and keep engaging. One option is to completely disregard the status update above, or “let someone else deal with it.” But, in the world of social media, a conversation can turn volatile in minutes.

The sooner you can engage, demonstrate your shared values with the person who posted the concern, and calmly offer reasonable advice or explanations, the more likely it is that the conversation will turn into an opportunity for intelligent discussion, rather than potentially diminishing confidence in today’s farmers.

Now, here is one way you might respond to the post:

“I understand your concern! I wouldn’t want my children being exposed to harmful substances, either. On my family’s farm, we spray the fields in the spring, too, to help the crops grow and keep bugs and other pests away. Anything that we spray has been tested and approved for use, so we know it’s not dangerous for the land, or animals and people living on or near it.

As more houses are built near our farm, we’ve had to figure out how to be considerate of our neighbors while still making a living from farming.”

As a follow up, you might also recommend to the Facebook post:

“The most likely solution you’ll find is to ask the farmer for a heads-up before he plans to spray. We do that for our neighbors! I’m sorry you were taken off-guard and suffered consequences, though — what a bad way to end dinner. Let me know if you have other questions!”

* * *

(Hana Bieliauskas is an account manager at CMA in the agency’s Columbus, Ohio, office. She can be reached at hanab@cmabuildstrust.com. Visit www.cmabuildstrust.com for more information on social media and communications.)

If you would like to write a guest post for The Social Silo, send an email to editor@farmanddairy.com.
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