Farming in the age of social media

Social media is changing the game for today's agricultural landscape.

In our online world, people aren’t afraid to share their opinions on just about anything. This includes views about the future of agriculture, whether that’s regarding Trump’s trade tariffs or eating less meat or genetically modified organisms, which are foods grown from engineered seeds. At a time when there are many pathways for the future of agriculture, there are two visions that have solidified on social media. One is the smaller, more sustainable farms trying to come up with new practices to use fewer resources. The second is the larger farms that are trying to become more efficient in order to feed the growing population.

20-year-old Ben Luebbering is a farmer who represents the latter. He also is literally a pig farmer of the future. Luebbering was awarded the title by the National Pork Board in March of 2019. He has taken to the internet to create content and share his thoughts on pork production on sites such as Medium and Twitter for the Real Pig Farming movement, a public relations campaign dedicated to uniting farmers, educators, industry members and more to share how modern pork production works.

Supply and demand

The world population is predicted to grow to roughly 9.7 billion people by 2050. Right now, one U.S. farm feeds roughly 155 people per year. With the predicted population growth, farmers will need to increase their production by 70%, according to Farm Bureau. But the farming industry isn’t growing like the population is. In 1935, there were 6.8 million farms in the U.S., and in 2017 there were roughly 2 million, 100,000 of which were in Missouri.

Social media isn’t the only advancement changing the lives of farmers and consumers. Technology in farming allows for production to move more smoothly and for the public to view how the food they eat everyday is made. In the 1980s, biotechnology became widely available to improve crops and livestock. Today efficiency still reigns supreme. The ability to reduce costs and supplies often has separated successful farms from bankrupt ones. Farmers must keep adapting to avoid this fate that so many others have faced.

Blogging in the barn

Luebbering has been sharing his love of farming on social media for years. As a former member of the prestigious Missouri Future Farmers of America Officer Team, he is soft-spoken and articulate.

Some of his articles on the Real Pig Farming’s blog make lighthearted references to delicious slabs of ribs and #Porktober, while others discuss the intricacies of antibiotic use and quality assurance. His stories are short enough to succeed on social media and simple enough for consumers to understand. They help fuel the Real Pig Farming Twitter account, where a new piece of content surfaces every few days. Sometimes it’s a “Littlest Pig Farmer” video featuring a pint-sized kid dressed in western clothing completing their farm chores. These posts help let the public see a different side of the farming industry, while still being educational.

In 1968 Ben’s grandparents founded the Lubbering’s farm, 16 years before Mark Zuckerberg was born and 36 years before he founded Facebook. The farm is located near St. Thomas, Missouri, and sits on a hilltop overlooking intermittent pastures and woods. The farm is named Profits Point after a creek that runs through the property. Ben and his father, Doug Luebbering, share some of the daily chores such as checking pigs to ensure that they have fresh feed and water. Ben, though, is wrapping up his bachelor's degree and can only come home on the weekends.

Public conversation on the web is a brave new world for many farmers, especially for those who didn’t grow up with social media, like Doug. “Ten years ago, I didn’t know what social media was,” he says.

To Doug, Ben’s foray into social media is a chance to show the public what farming means at Profits Point. The Luebberings are trying to show farming in a positive light, but not everyone agrees. In Missouri, the Facebook group Friends of Responsible Agriculture advocates against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, a term used by the Department of Natural Resources to describe over 1,000 units (or 1,000 pounds) of animals being raised indoors for more than 45 days straight. For example, this would be 700 dairy cows or 82,000 hens. Community members and some farmers say CAFOs are “factory farms.” The issue these groups have with CAFOs is the potential pollutants that come from the large amount of concentrated animal waste.

“A lot of people like to use the term factory farming and things that have a negative connotation,” Doug says. “They think we’re just in it for the money.”

As margins have become thinner, the Luebberings have used technology in clever ways to become more efficient. Housing pigs indoors provides a steady income that isn’t weather-dependent, unlike growing crops, which were flooded last summer. Ben is especially enamored with technology and sees it as Profits Point’s ticket into a prosperous future. The ease of online record-keeping has helped producers to reduce costs and make more with less because they have been able to track everything more easily. One of Ben’s goals for the farm is to become even more efficient in order to support himself and his cousins.

Get connected

The sustainable agriculture movement offers another view of the future. It hopes to feed the growing population without compromising resources for the future generation. Some of the more sustainable practices include becoming more enviornmentally friendly by using less water and lowering pollutants, according to the Agriculture Sustainability Institute.

Farmers and consumers on social media have also worked to be more sustainable by spreading #meatlessmonday, a global campaign urging people to stop eating meat in the name of healthy living and curbing climate change. The campaign also provides information online about recipes and health news related to food.

The Columbia Farmers Market serves as a haven where consumers can learn about farming and purchase fresh food. The farmers market has recently started work on an agriculture park that will allow residents to learn about the local farming industry in new ways.

The role of social media in agriculture was still in its infancy when John Corn became involved with the Columbia Farmers Market years ago. He has watched as more and more vendors begin to share their stories online. Now president of the board of directors, Corn, and other vendors, are benefiting from the market’s lively and engaging social media presence.

Corn also farms 2 acres of mixed vegetables with his wife, Sandra Corn. Sometimes she will post pictures of arrangements she’s made using fresh produce. Corn says his main goal for his farm’s social media page is to inform consumers about when they can buy his products and what is available.

Columbia resident Angela Claybrook frequently shops at the market with her husband and young son. She says she is interested in interacting with the farmers who grow her food and learning about the health benefits of their products. Knowing about production practices has only made her more passionate about local agriculture.

“I’m hoping that people gain more interest in coming to the farmers market, eating healthier and meeting all these wonderful people who are producing these things for us to benefit from,” Claybrook says.

The Luebberings also have a farm Facebook page, where rows of sleeping piglets serve as the cover photo. It’s one of Ben’s projects. He is always trying to find new ways to complete his vision, but he’s often frustrated by farm’s slow internet connection. Consumers’ opinions on the industry form online for future generations to follow. However, without access to internet, it could put farmers behind. Roughly 1.2 million Missourians are living without high-speed internet, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

Internet isn’t just a problem in rural areas. Corn says the lack of internet access can be a barrier for farmers market vendors, too. “A lot of our newer growers are very adept at promoting themselves on social media,” he says. “Then there are those that are very rural without internet access, and they also might be older. It’s kind of beyond their means.”

Growing access to the internet and a more youthful generations of farmers will continue to add to the shifting presence of agriculture online as the industry figures out its future over the next 30 years.

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