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Why Farmers Are Embracing Social Media: the #AgChat Story

“AgChat [is] a moderated Twitter discussion that takes place every Tuesday night. Since its creation in 2009, nearly 10,000 people from ten countries have attached the hashtag #agchat to their tweets, or joined in to discuss issues and share ideas related to food and farming.

Phil Gorringe—aka ‘FarmrPhil‘ on Twitter—runs a mixed farm in Herefordshire, England. It’s the most sparsely populated county in England, with the fourth lowest population density. For people living and working there permanently, especially farmers working out in the fields most of the day, often alone, that can be isolating. Gorringe believes social media is a great way to tackle that isolation. As he puts it: “Social media gives a mental advantage when farming isn’t going so well. In the last few years we’ve been dealing with lower prices for our products, difficult weather conditions, and bovine TB. It can be a lonely place. Through social media I can share my problems and realize that others out there have problems too. It makes you feel better.”


But farmers are not just reaching out to each other for support. Social media is also a powerful way of talking directly with consumers … Phil Grooby, of Bishops Farm Partners of Lincolnshire, England, started using Twitter to show consumers what it takes to get peas from the field to the table. Grooby belongs to a pea vining group that harvests about 900 acres each year. He finds social media “a useful tool when it comes to setting the record straight and showing people how farmers care for the countryside.” ‘FarmrPhil’ agrees. “Twitter is the perfect medium for farmers to engage in differential marketing in a world of commodities.” Offline, he confides: “We don’t do horrendous things as farmers, but we’ve been brought up to be terrified of the outside world seeing in. It’s been a pleasant surprise that when we tell our story via social media people aren’t horrified by what we do—it’s shown me that there’s no need for secrecy.”

Social media also offers farmers the opportunity to engage directly with policy makers. “It gives us a level playing field that we’ve never had access to before,” says Phil. “Recently a senior conservation spokesperson wrote on his blog that he didn’t trust farmers to carry out the Campaign for the Farmed Environment (an industry initiative to improve biodiversity and resource protection on farms). I challenged him on it and he apologised and changed his blog.”


So is social media just a fad? For Payn-Knoper, the answer is unequivocally ‘no.’ She says it has been a “cultural shift” to connect farmers and help them get the word out about food production. That’s why last year she was part of founding the AgChat Foundation with a handful of farmers passionate about social media. The nonprofit aims to empower a connected community of ‘agvocates,’ by training farmers to use social media. In August 2010, it organized Agvocacy 2.0, gathering 50 people from the agricultural industry to advance their social media skills at this application-only conference. They have plans for more of the same, along with outreach to the non-ag public. But Payn-Knoper also believes there is a challenge ahead: “The next big thing for social media and farming is a way for information to be more effectively managed through social hubs. Many people are just at the point of information overload.”

At Farming Futures we started to use social media about a year ago to do just that, creating a hub for useful information, news and views about climate change and farming from people across the agricultural sector. We run a user-generated blog, reach out to communities on Twitter to do research and share ideas, and make use of other tools and platforms such as Audioboo and Slideshare to share our information in more accessible and interesting ways. Social media can’t take the place of face-to-face communication, so we still run very popular on-farm workshops—but it’s a great way of getting people along.”



[CC image credit: Cross Road--Still Life, ca. 1933-1934, oil on canvas by Paul Benjamin]

Medical merino

It looks like NZ merino is successfully expanding its market again: Encircle Compression Therapy socks were recently named a winner in the 2011 Medical Design Excellence Awards competition and announced as a finalist in the DuPont ANZ Innovation Awards.

The product was developed for The Merino Company by Locus Research (led by Timothy Allen, a graduate of VUW’s School of Design) in partnership with the AgResearch Textiles Group and the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, and produced by Levana Textiles (part of TMC).

“Encircle is the first two layer graduated compression system that utilises natural merino fibre next to skin. Encircle consists of five novel attributes that significantly advance patient care and will create a new product category in the global compression market:

  1. An innovative bi-component fabric: that both absorbs and wicks moisture away from the skin creating an effective micro environment for healing and comfort in use;
  2. A two layer system: that effectively utilises the bi-component material to manage the build up of moisture, and to ‘build up’ the level of compression, making application easier;
  3. An improved method of application: that allows the end user to put on and take off the compression garment as prescribed, without clinical assistance;
  4. Pressure release: that aids conformance by allowing the patient to release some pressure without taking the garment off, still retaining a moderate level of pressure through the provision of a ‘bridge’; compression;
  5. A method of specification linked to the garment: that makes prescription easier and more accurate, ensuring correct sizing and delivering the intended compression level.”

On the research and design process:

Radio NZ: “Lead designer Blythe Rees-Jones says the brief was to find innovative new applications for merino.” [See Textile NZ's Transform initiative.]

Scoop (Locus Research press release): “Rees-Jones praises the other researchers in the Encircle team such as Dr Stewart Collie, from the AgResearch Textiles Group for ‘his amazing knowledge of textile science’. ‘Encircle’s success has come from a great team, and the fact we did user centred design. The team essentially became the patient and that is how we created the product.’ … Professor Beasley says he was impressed by the commitment of Locus Research and The Merino Company to undertake ‘rigorous testing of its product‘ prior to launching it on the market.”

Welcome to MyFarm

Last week I was one of 1000 people to join the UK-based MyFarm project in its first 48 hours. It’s being described in the press as a real-life FarmVille, but here’s how they describe it:

“MyFarm is a big online experiment in farming and food production, giving 10,000 members of the public a say in the running of a real working farm. The farm is on Wimpole Estate, near Royston in Cambridgeshire. The MyFarm Farmers will join forces on this website to discuss and make decisions on every aspect of the farm: the crops we grow, the breeds of animal we stock, the new facilities we invest in and the machinery we use. The aim of the farm is to be profitable, and to maintain the highest standards of sustainability and welfare.


The National Trust is the country’s biggest farmer. More than 80 per cent of the 250,000 hectares of land under our care is farmed in some way. We therefore consider it to be our role to reconnect people with farming, and to promote care for the land.”

For the past year I’ve been thinking and talking with people about related social and technological projects so I’m completely fascinated by the scale and complexity of this experiment. MyFarm needs at least 6500 subscribers to be financially viable, and 10000 subscribers to create an active online community of 250 people. I’m really curious to see how the subscribers break down geographically and demographically, and hope the National Trust makes that information public.

The actual farm is run by the Farm Team, led by Richard Morris (@farmermorris), and there are three main project themes: crops, livestock and wider impacts. The broader contexts of farming are obviously of interest to me, but I imagine that I’ll most closely participate in livestock matters. For example, I was instantly struck by how the project defined the relationship between people and animals:

“The first thing to say is that as a rule, we don’t give our animals names. Why? Because they’re not pets. They’re the produce of the farm – and they’re core to making the farm a viable business. That may sound harsh, but this is a real working farm, and that is the reality. You won’t be meeting Daisy the Cow at Wimpole. That said, they do have names of a sort – but these are practical pedigree names, which reflect a cow’s parenthood, heritage and date of birth; rather more like the names you and I have.”

The status of livestock as somewhere between pets and wild animals is familiar to most people, and I suspect that most people are also hesitant to get friendly with an animal that may be slaughtered. (Did anyone else notice that wasn’t brought up as a reason not to name a farm animal?) But I wonder how much non-farmers understand or agree that livestock’s primary identity is one of commodities that derive their value through what they have been bred to produce.

But more generally, if we can take the viewer statistics from MyFarm’s YouTube channel as an indicator, people are much more interested in the livestock than anything else: 2,150 people have viewed the livestock video to-date, while only 304 have watched the wider impacts video and 162 the crop video. Perhaps it has something to do with the farm’s commitment to raising rare breeds; it’s certainly been a lively topic in the discussion forum so far and I’m impressed by the unusual stock and the debates they will inevitably raise. For example, the farm raises five rare breeds of sheep for meat and wool: Portlands, Manx Loagthans, Hebrideans, Whitefaced Woodlands, Norfolk Horns and it’s easy to support efforts to ensure their survival. But it’s also easy to see how conservation and environmental values might conflict with market values, as traditional farming methods tend to be slower. (Part of the reason that some breeds became rare in the first place is because they were not as profitable as others.)

So how does all this virtual farming work? Farmer Jon–the man behind MyFarm–explains:

“It’s pretty simple really. We’ll have one big decision every month, or thereabouts. Right at the beginning, we’ll tell you what the question is going to be. The first one will be about what we should grow on the farm. Then we’ll spend a couple of weeks in the discussions exploring that question a little bit. What do we need to know to answer the question? What is the equivalent that we can all do at home to understand farming a little better? What possible answers can we rule out early, so that when we come to vote, we’re voting on decent options? This first month, we’ll talk a lot about soil types and climate on the farm. At that point, having taken part in the discussions with us, Richard will set out his recommendation for the options for us. We’ll have a couple of days to make sure we’re happy with those options – then we vote. The vote will stay open for about a week, giving everyone plenty of time to have their say. We’ll close at the appointed time, and whatever gets the most votes, we’ll do!”

Cool. The first vote is on 26 May, when we’ll decide what to plant in one of the key fields. But, understandably, it won’t be a free-for-all:

“Now, we don’t just want to chuck the reins to you and say ‘Do whatever you like!’ This isn’t a Facebook game – it’s a real farm, with real decisions and real consequences. We won’t stop you making mistakes – we’ll need to make some mistakes along the way if we’re really going to learn anything new by doing this – but we do need to manage the risk with you at least a little bit.”

Fair enough. And for my part, I’ll post here around every vote in an attempt to summarise the discussions and reflect on the decisions, as well as document my experiences as a virtual farmer. I’m really looking forward to this, so let the experiment begin!


I really need to keep up on local farm news better because I was almost a month late in finding out about the IFarmer:Inventory app. Invented by Kiwi farmer Dan Smith, and advertised by Telecom, IFarmer is:

“The complete mobile inventory management solution for farmers and live stock agents. Real-time farm management, inventory control and reconciliation from the convenience of your mobile phone. Record and report on sales and purchases of stock, keep track of their locations, add notes, photos and other attachments. Export to desktop and farm accounting software.”

Most interesting for my research, Smith explains in the video above how the app can help farmers take care of the day-to-day requirements imposed by the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) programme and, in a further combination of technological determinism and everyday pragmatism, he explains that smartphones are “the way the world will be forced to go,” and “implore[s] people to jump on the bandwagon very quickly.”

A Dominion Post article also tells a good story about how such “grassroots” technologies come to life:

“Dan is a sheep, beef and cropping farmer and works seven different blocks within South Wairarapa and Carterton districts with mobs of stock scattered across the whole operation. He makes up to three or four transactions a day, which can be a bit of a nightmare, keeping track of all the details. It requires double and even triple entering figures into notebooks out in the field, which can be messy and inefficient.

He knew there must be a better way.

While Dan admits he is no computer guru, he has always been reasonably technologically savvy and he thought it must be possible to develop a phone application for farmers to keep track of inventory, animal health requirements and locations of mob groups, among other things. He started formulating the initial concepts on hard copy in August last year and, after much difficulty finding people with the right expertise, he employed software developers from a couple of New Zealand companies, PixelThis in Palmerston North and Simworks in Auckland, to construct the app to his specifications.”

Last month Canadian farming news site Alberta Farmer Express published an article on The Rise of the iFarmer, which focusses on smartphone apps that simply provide information on markets and weather. What seems to make the IFarmer app unique is the ability for farmers to easily input stock information and reconcile it instantly.

“Ifarmer is designed to be ancillary support to standard accounting software that most in the industry would have on their desktops already. For technology like this to be successful, it has to be straightforward to use. Dan has been conscious that farmers have to be able to get their heads around it without too much effort. Though the app he has designed has multiple features, its navigation is simple and remarkably easy to use. Dan demonstrated the input process on the farm and he even smeared his hand with dirt and water and showed that his iPhone had no problem interpreting his commands.”

Now, I wonder if it’s worth the $50 to see how IFarmer actually works, and how long it will be until similar apps appear?

NAIT in the news

NZ’s NAIT scheme has been in the news a lot more lately, and I just want to round up some of the stories for an article I’m working on.

Otago Daily Times: Opportunities for smart efficiency with tagging (Apr 11)
“By using available technology, farmers could work smarter and more efficiently to improve production.”

Wairarapa Times Age: Tags not just earmarked for cattle (Apr 13)
“Electronic ear tags for cattle are so useful, says one Wairarapa farmer, that he is using them for his sheep.”

Southland Times: Farmer warned to prepare for tagging (Apr 13)
“NAIT stakeholder engagement manager Dan Schofield urged farmers to check on their responsibilities.While the scheme would have a soft introduction with any breach of the rules leading to warnings, there would be significant penalties introduced.”

NZ Herald: Farmers fret over cost of new animal tags scheme (Apr 18)
“The Crown would provide, at most, $7 million to establish the scheme, plus 35 per cent of ongoing operating costs, with 65 per cent funded through levies. Ongoing operating expenditure would be about $6 million a year and NAIT was working through the levies.”

NZ Herald: Livestockers worry Big Brother is coming down to the farm (Apr 27)
“Federated Farmers’ major concerns about the proposed regime included its cost, its use of what was now regarded as obsolete technology, the powers the overseeing organisation would have to demand and even seize information, and the prospect the information gathered would be used to calculate charges for farm animals’ greenhouse gas emissions.”

Scoop: Biosecurity fundamental but NAIT questions remain (Apr 27)
“We need the biosecurity ambulance at the top of the cliff rather than relying on NAIT at the bottom, when really, it’s far too late.”

3News: Dairy companies call for electronic ID for sheep (Apr 27)
“The dairy industry and dairy farmers were making a significant investment in NAIT. Not having sheep will weaken their investment…A timeframe for inclusion of sheep and other at-risk species needs to be agreed before the initial go-live date of November this year.”

Ashburton Guardian: Ear tags to go digital (Apr 28)
“Although farmers realise NAIT is imminent, some see the technology as just another cost that offers little added benefits to traceability schemes which are already in place.”

Radio NZ: Fed Farmers fighting ID scheme to the last (Apr 28)
“Federated Farmers is making a last-ditch stand aimed at scuppering the much-debated national animal identification and tracing system, NAIT.”

Otago Daily Times: NAIT not a silver bullet, farmers say (May 2)
“While Federated Farmers fully backed biosecurity resources at the border “because biosecurity is the alpha and omega of not just farming, but the entire economy”, it remained of concern that the NAIT Bill was being treated as the only solution.” Farmers wary of tracing bill (May 2)
“Spokesman Lachlan McKenzie said the National Animal Identification and Tracing Bill gave NAIT officials excessive powers lifted from the controversial Search and Surveillance Bill to enforce compliance with the scheme.”

What to trace? And why?

I’ve been looking at “farm to fork” food traceability in an attempt to articulate how “grower to garment” wool traceability is similar and/or different. (Don’t get me started on what either has in common with surveilling, er, tracing people…)

Here’s how IBM’s Smarter Food initiative frames the food problem and solution:

“Food is as fundamental as it gets. And our relationship with it has changed with every year. Just ten years ago, most consumers were focused on eating a diet low in fat. Biotechnology was extremely limited in its application and considered somewhat dangerous. And few people knew what organic meant or why it mattered. Today, the picture is one of heightened challenges. Food prices are soaring. Shortages have sparked unrest the world over. The threat of salmonella poisoning prompts the recall of millions of U.S. eggs. And every year, ten million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases. At the same time, consumers are hungrier than ever for information about their food. They are better informed about nutrition and more aware of the environmental and societal impacts of everything they buy … With innovative digital technology and powerful solutions, IBM is making sure food is traced properly as it passes though an increasingly complex global supply chain. IBM is also making that food heartier through biological research. The future of food starts today.

Pet food. Lettuce. Peanut butter. Baby food. Milk. These are just some of the high profile recalls we’ve seen in the last year. Consumers worldwide are worried—and rightly so. Is their food safe? And where did it come from? One solution is track and trace technology, including 2D and 3D barcode and radio frequency identification (RFID). This allows us to track food from “farm to fork.” And now government regulations and industry requirements for quality and traceability are driving food producers worldwide to provide more detail on products. With an increasingly global supply chain, that detail must be comprehensive and reliable. And with that detail, companies can realize added value as well, such as a streamlined distribution chain and lower spoilage rates. In fact, consumer product and retail industries lose about $40 billion annually, or 3.5% of their sales, due to supply chain inefficiencies.”

IBM: Setting the Table for a Smarter Planet (pdf)

And here’s a series of articles on traceability:

Ten examples of brands dishing up details on food origins
App for shoppers rates how brands address forced & child labour
Swedish dairy uses tracking numbers as a ‘still-made-here’ marketing tool
Supermarkets offer increased food traceability, for info and safety
Site alerts consumers to product recalls that affect them

Or how about a more DIY, hands-on approach?

C&T2011 Workshop > Food(ing): Between Human-Computer and Human-Food-Experience

But the question remains: do people want or need the same information about products that they don’t eat, like clothing?

Tracing the history of what you buy
Zque: Ethical Wool
Icebreaker: Sustainability + Baacode
Patagonia: Footprint Chronicles
Rapanui Clothing: Traceability in Textiles
TEDxZurich: Robin Cornelius wants to make clothing traceable

And is there a difference between what we want to know and what we need to know?

Update: Siobhan O’Flynn extends this from “field to fork to feet,” or “bags at least”: You Gonna Eat That? And Wear It, Too?: A Restaurant in Brooklyn Sells Bags Made From the Hides of the Very Animals It Serves on Menu

Golden fleece

Last night I went to the launch event for the Year of Chemistry, not least because it included a Merino Gold Fashion Show.

For the past five or so years, researchers from Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology have been researching gold and silver nanoparticles as colourants for high fashion textiles. Supervised by Prof. Jim Johnston, recent PhD graduates Fern Kelly and Kerstin Lucas [née Burridge] pioneered ways to embed nanoparticles of gold and silver in New Zealand merino wool.

“When the precious metals are reduced to the nanoscale (a nanoparticle is one billionth of a metre in diameter) they scatter light in different colours with silver appearing as yellow, peach, pink and purple and gold producing a range of brilliant hues. That means textiles in many colours can be created without using traditional—and mostly synthetic—dyes, adding to the sustainability of the innovation. Repeated testing by Drs Kelly and Lucas has shown that the gold and silver are bound to the wool with an ultra strong bond making the textiles totally colourfast and ensuring they do not fade in light or with repeated washing. In addition, the textile products incorporating silver nanoparticles have strong anti-microbial properties meaning they resist bacteria and pests, like moth larvae, that live in carpets. They also reduce the build-up of static electricity.”

Pretty exciting fibre science, to be sure. But I’m also completely fascinated by how it taps into broader cultural values. When NZ merino wool is already a high-prestige brand, the addition of precious metals only further stresses that quality. Drawing on the 100% Pure NZ brand, the fashions last night were introduced with terms like “pure merino,” “pure gold” and “pure luxury.” And sure enough:

“The initial target market for the golden wools is high end fashion accessories, fabrics and floor coverings. While it is around 100 times more expensive than wool coloured with organic dyes, there is interest for niche applications such as scarves, exclusive apparel and luxury carpet for residences, hotels or super yachts … ‘It’s had enormous market acceptance from the start. “Wow” is what people from across the wool industry say what they see what we are doing to add significant value to the New Zealand wool clip’.”

There’s a lot about the marketing strategy that deserves unpacking, and I think I’ll add a section to the paper I’m writing on NZ merino branding. In terms of sustainability, I understand that moving away from traditional (esp. synthetic) dyes is a big deal environmentally, but I don’t know enough about the process to know if the product isn’t automatically implicated in the environmental and health issues associated with gold mining. I mean, the gold has to come from somewhere, doesn’t it? I’ll definitely have to follow up on that.

I’d also like to talk with them about working with designers, and how they understand the connections between science and creative practice. For the fashion show they worked with final year students from Massey University Fashion Design, and Greer Osborne won the fashion show competition with her “ready to wear look inspired by the New Zealand environment and in particular the merino wool product.” Dr Lucas was quoted as saying “It’s been fantastic getting creative minds on to exploring the possibilities,” but I’d be surprised if she thought that scientists weren’t also creative. I’ve always been fascinated when artists and designers say that scientists (or other academics) aren’t creative, as if creativity belongs to some professions (or people) and not others. I know plenty of scientists who object to that characterisation and, when the description is reversed, just as many creative practitioners who do not appreciate being told their work lacks intellectual or experimental merit. Surely the boundaries are much blurrier than all this suggests! For example, the MacDiarmid Institute asked researchers from around New Zealand to “enter the most interesting images from their work in a competition”–which effectively put creativity in the hands (or eyes) of scientists–and then the best images were put on display in The Art of Nanotech exhibition. Sure, “interesting” might not be the same as “beautiful,” but it is just as much a part of creativity or creative practice.

In any case, I’ve got loads more to think about now and I hope to arrange some time with the chemists before classes start up at the end of the month.

Further reading:
“Going for Gold, and Silver.” Twist, October 2008

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