Airplanes are thinking time to me. That means January thru March involves a lot of brain time as I fly between speaking engagements. Five winters ago, a recurring thought continued to gnaw at me; social media offered an opportunity for agriculture to work together and to reach people interested in food. At the time, I had been on Facebook and Twitter since mid-2008, blogged for a couple of years, and been active in other channels. My original purpose in being a part of social media was to inform, inspire and incite conversations around farm and food – and that purpose remains the same today.
Like many, I thought Twitter was stupid for the first several months. Then in January 2009, I started tweeting out food facts on a regular basis – and the day when one of those was picked up by mainstream media – I decided perhaps the Twitterverse may actually have value. About the same time, I started participating in #Journchat, a weekly chat for journalists.
My experience in watching that conversation provoked my thinking that maybe Twitter was a tool to draw agriculture together, while also taking the ag message beyond the choir. After all, I had preached for years in my trainings that agriculture needed to work together and get our stories into mainstream. It’s important to practice what I preach, so when travel season slowed down, I threw the idea out on Twitter about #AgChat and #FoodChat on Twitter the first week of April 2009 – let’s get together for a couple of hours on Tuesday night. Aside from reaching out to ag folks I knew on Twitter, there was no great campaign or strategy behind starting the first #AgChat on April 8, 2009. It was simply an idea in a land of pioneers. I honestly thought it might get shot down pretty quickly, but I live by a life philosophy of “no risk, no reward.”
There was a fair amount of behind-the-scenes minutia, such as setting up a Twitter account, messaging my network to get the word out, identifying the right time and figuring how to best promote the growing chat – particularly in the food world. It was important it wasn’t just chatter, so I approached it the same way I facilitate meetings. There would be a moderator to help guide the chat participants would contribute and professional behavior was expected.
The first chat made it pretty clear that the pioneers wanted to talk about how to speak out for agriculture, so I started asking people to DM questions for the conversation. Then, for a long time, I was tied to my office every Tuesday night 8-10 p.m., E.T., moderating the fast-paced chat. To this day, I believe the community participation drives ownership and the growth of the cause. However, I also see egos infringe upon that philosophy from time to time, but dedicated leaders continue to focus on the people served – and the bigger cause of connecting people around the plate.
While I moderated all of the chats in the early days, travel necessitated guest moderators, many of whom served on the founding board for the AgChat Foundation. As the chat grew, the pundits did as well. The consistently facilitated structure of #AgChat/#Foodchat unquestionably served to keep the weekly conversations civil. As the chats grew and gained a lot of visibility, I was accused of being paid by corporations, had my personal integrity questioned and learned to let names like “paid prostitute” slide.
The community consistently stepped up to defend those who were trying to add depth to agriculture’s voice and it became apparent we needed to facilitate the “town hall” concept as much as we could. There was also the reality that I couldn’t handle everything myself. Many of the #AgChat/#Foodchat pioneers volunteered to moderate, invite people, track data, archive the conversations, get media coverage – and they were amazingly effective (they know who they were – and I’m afraid of missing someone, so am not listing any names). There’s no doubt it took a village! Ideas flowed, our community connected in other ways, campaigns around activist claims were executed and mainstream media was fascinated that farmers used technology.
Ideas of what to do with #AgChat and #FoodChat’s engaged community came from across the U.S. and Canada. Early social media acquaintances became collaborators with longtime friends from across North America. My greatest concern was how to keep the community going regardless of the change in social platforms – and ensure it remained for the good of the cause.
Companies and agencies offered money to have their name attached to the effort, but no dollars were accepted so that it could be truly grassroots. It became easier to get the food circles involved in #Foodchat and we had a variety of special guests. Eventually a group of us came together to form the AgChat Foundation, which would be launched on the first year anniversary of #AgChat. The Foundation has trained hundreds of new “agvocates”, raised substantial money to help farmers and ranchers, hired staff to keep the details in order and started managing the weekly chats two years ago (unfortunately, I rarely get to moderate or participate due to my schedule).
Does AgChat provide all the answers to agriculture’s problems? No. Does agriculture still struggle with working together and going beyond the choir? Yes. Has #AgChat/#FoodChat, and subsequently the AgChat Foundation, facilitated the conversation to bring those groups closer together? Absolutely. Is there only one way to tell our story and can it only be done through social media? Not a chance. Do we have more to do? Every day.
I stand in awe of the people in our community and the leaders who serve them. For example, each of the 35 contributors in my first book No More Food Fights! is a relationship established through this community. However, my admiration goes beyond just the early adopters, many of whom have become wonderful friends.
Last year’s national conference brought together a roomful of people two or three degree degrees removed from the founding board of the AgChat Foundation, which I believe clearly illustrates how the community has made an impact. I have been quietly inspired by watching many of them sharing their farm story and bring others to the plate to do the same.
The ripple effect is in action and continues to touch new people daily. Little did I know the reach and breadth of an idea started five years ago, but I am thankful for the inspiration this community continues to provide around the farm and food conversation. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of #AgChat and #FoodChat, I also have to ask… what’s next? Food for thought on the next airplane…or tractor ride. May the innovation continue!