It almost goes without saying — social media is fundamentally changing the way that we communicate. According to a 2011 study conducted by Edison Research, 52% of Americans over the age of 12 maintain at least one profile at a social media site. These social tools are a resource that agriculture is increasingly tapping into in order to connect with the public. Consumers today are hungry for dialogue about food production — and for a mother grocery shopping in downtown Chicago, a blog post or Facebook conversation might be the closest she gets to talking with a real farmer.
In 2009, the Animal Agriculture Alliance launched the College Aggies Online network to help young people become confident agriculture advocates using new media. Members gain points for their university clubs by engaging in discussions, writing blog posts, uploading photos and videos to the CAO network and participating in other outreach activities on their campus. At the end of the year, the points are tallied and the club with the most cumulative points receives a $1,000 scholarship, national recognition and a trip for one representative to Washington, D.C. to the Alliance's annual Stakeholders Summit. Individual scholarships are also awarded.
Why the focus on online advocacy? For one thing, we know that activists who seek to eliminate animal agriculture have been early adopters of these new tools to promote their extreme agenda. The Humane Society of the United States has more than one million followers on Facebook. Other groups such as Mercy For Animals and Compassion Over Killing use social media to circulate “undercover” videos that undermine the hard work of farmers.
Their spin, as we all know, is far from the truth. After all, who knows more about animal husbandry—an activist with no connection to agriculture, or a farmer who works his entire life for his animals?
Celeste Laurent, the 2010 College Aggies Online winner representing Western Kentucky University’s Block and Bridle Club, explains the potential impact of social media on the future of agriculture:
"Through social media, consumers can get honest, sincere answers to their food questions from a farmer. Consumers are going to turn to the internet for the answers to their food questions. If we in agriculture don't start putting our stories out there, someone who has never seen a farm will tell that story for us!"
Jessie McClellan of Casper College’s Ag Club in Wyoming was the 2011 individual winner. She decided to get involved in College Aggies Online to better educate herself about the issues facing the industry.
"Although I feel I am heavily involved in agriculture, I didn't feel that I knew very much outside of my own experiences," she said. "I am now aware of some of the many challenges agriculture faces. Everything we do can be traced back to agriculture, and the general public needs to know and appreciate this. I want to help ensure that the importance of agriculture is known, and the CAO program is the perfect place to start."
Agriculture needs more young “agvocates” like Celeste and Jessie to share the industry’s importance to their peers. It’s easy for college students to get involved with College Aggies Online. To learn more about the competition, visit http://aggiesonline.ning.com.. Interested collegiate clubs can also contact Krissa Welshans, project coordinator. Industry stakeholders interested in program sponsorship opportunities should contact Krissa or visit the Alliance's website at www.animalagalliance.org.
Sarah Hubbart is the communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a national non-profit organization that helps consumers better understand the role animal agriculture plays in providing a safe, abundant food supply to the world. Hubbart utilizes traditional and new media to showcase the importance of the American farmer and rancher. Follow Sarah on behalf of the Alliance by visiting the organization’s Facebook, Twitter or Youtube pages or by emailing Sarah Hubbart.