Cultivating a Brand New Field
Thanks to a USDA grant, two professors are teaching farmers, ranchers how to better utilize the Internet.
Written by George Watson
The seminars are designed to help teach those in agriculture-related businesses how to best utilize the Internet.
The Texas landscape is lined with small, two-lane highways like small blood vessels branching off of veins and arteries, connecting virtually every town in the state to another. They’re called Farm-to-Market roads, and back in the day they were the main thoroughfares allowing farmers and ranchers to bring their goods to the market to sell.
Today, however, goods and services tend to move faster on the information superhighway than they do the back roads of the state, and it is that method of commerce two Texas Tech University professors are promoting to help those in the agricultural industries improve their business.
Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Program, Erica Irlbeck, an assistant professor of agricultural communications, and Courtney Meyers, an associate professor in agricultural communications in the Texas Tech College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, developed a series of seminars called Beyond the Farm Gate.
Beyond the Farm Gate was designed to help teach those in agriculture-related businesses how to best utilize the Internet, from creating websites to promotion on social media platforms to helping those businesses grow and prosper.
“We’ve seen the agricultural industry take ahold of this and use social media as a way to communicate the message of agriculture,” Irlbeck said. “So many people just don’t understand it, didn’t grow up around it or don’t understand what it’s about. They’ve seen a movie about farming or read a book about a farm, and their knowledge is based off what they’ve read.”
“So I think it’s great that social media is being used to tell the story of agriculture and talk about the family farm, what they’re doing every day and why they do things a certain way. A lot of farmers and ranchers are out there blogging every day or on Facebook or tweeting every single day.”
Spreading the Message
Irlbeck and Meyers held one of their seminars at the end of July, drawing interest from those who run companies that support farmers and ranchers, to those looking to promote their small farms, to communications professionals looking for better ways to expand their company’s reach.
Assistant Professor Erica Irlbeck delivers a message about social media at a recent seminar.
Irlbeck concentrated on the social media aspect, discussing everything from which platforms would work best for certain business to how best to keep those platforms fresh as well as what attracts viewers the most.
She showed those in attendance the best way to not only attract followers but to keep them coming back and having them spread the word, whether it’s on other social media platforms or simply by word of mouth.
Above all, she stressed that planning is the key and that social media strategies need to be planned and executed with the same attention to detail as traditional marketing campaigns. She stressed that everyone involved in the company should be involved with the social media aspect, and that proper planning helps avoid mishaps that could lead to new planning or unforeseen adjustments to the current plan.
“With social media you can see that it’s only getting bigger and bigger and being used more and more to promote the agricultural industry for smaller business,” Irlbeck said.
Meyers spent the second half of the seminar discussing websites, their usefulness in promoting businesses and the best ways farmers and ranchers can use them..
Her lecture covered everything from website benefits to principles of design and functionality, content management and promotion of the site on social media.
Associate Professor Courtney Meyers explained the benefits of creating your own business website.
“Consumers today are very interested in where there food comes from,” Meyers said, “and farmers and ranchers can leverage these online tools to answer questions, address concerns, and provide their perspective of the industry.”
In terms of benefits, Meyers said having a website allows businesses to control the amount and style of content that can be updated as needed while adding value to the company’s products.
Items discussed under content ranged from a synopsis of the company to contact info, a list of products and services offered, history of the company, frequently asked questions and testimonials. Meyers also showed ways to promote the business on the site through social media and ways to incorporate the website on mobile platforms such as tablets and smartphones.
Maybe the most important aspect of the website, Meyers said, is the design, and she follows four key elements – contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity. Contrast deals with making sure two similar elements on the site are as different as possible. Repetition calls for consistency between pages to aid in navigation. Alignment calls for design elements to line up vertically and horizontally, while proximity suggests grouping like elements together so they are easier to find.
Meyers also covered other platforms such as blogs, and how best to create and maintain effective and attractive blogs, and also dealt with search engine optimization (SEO) that allows potential customers to easily find a business when searching through Google, Yahoo or other like search engines.
“We’ve seen the agricultural industry take ahold of this and use social media as a way to communicate the message of agriculture.”
– Erica Irlbeck, assistant professor
“Websites and blogs are particularly useful,” Meyers said. “Most people are accustomed to searching the web for information, so farmers and ranchers can use websites and blogs to inform, persuade, and even change behavior.”
As far as what’s next, Irlbeck said that the public will just have to wait and see. But by getting the farming and ranching industry up to speed on current technology, she and Meyers will be ready for whatever comes down the road, whether it’s technological or traversed on four wheels.
“It will just continue to grow and change and be more efficient,” Irlbeck said.
The College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources is made up of six departments:
- Agriculture and Applied Economics
- Agricultural Education and Communications
- Animal and Food Science
- Landscape Architecture
- Plant and Soil Science
- Natural Resources Management
The college also consists of eleven research centers and institutes, including the Cotton Economics Research Institute, the International Cotton Research Center and the Fiber and Biopolymer Research Institute.
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