Producers Get a Crash Course in Social Media

7/2/2011 10:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — When it comes to using computers, Kaitlyn Stutzman and Heidi Trimbur are complete opposites.

While Kaitlyn considers herself to be the most computer savvy in her family, Heidi would rather be outside caring for her sheep at her Trimburfield Farm Finnsheep in Alburtis, Pa.

“I’m not a technical person,” Trimbur said. “I’m much more comfortable outside with the animals.”

But when it comes to driving sales, they both agree: Social media can be an asset.

The two were part of a small group learning how to use social media Tuesday evening at Penn State Schuylkill.

The workshop was organized by Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Unlike other Extension programs, where an educator stands in front of a class and lectures, participants got their hands dirty, sort of, and tried their best to make a blog, set up a Facebook page and speak the lingo of a “Tweet.”

Andy Beck, Extension educator in commercial horticulture, said producers are more and more learning how to use social media to tap into the hunger for more locally grown foods.

“Growers really want to tap that market, and an easy way and free way to do that is social media,” he said.

But blogs, as well as websites like Facebook and Twitter, also provide a way for producers to keep in touch with the local community like they never could before.

Andrew Frankenfield, an Extension educator in Montgomery County who also helps run his family’s business, Frankenfield Farm Market, said he often uses Facebook as a way to keep people updated about happenings on the farm, whether it be the latest crops being harvested or the conditions on the field.

“I’m trying to reach out sort of to the younger buyer. This is my attempt at reaching out to a broader audience,” Frankenfield said.

For Stutzman and Trimbur, social media presents a chance to drive sales and make money.

Stutzman works for the family business, Red Shale Ridge Vineyards in Hegins, Pa.

“My dad made me do this,” she said, laughing. “Cause I’m the most computer savvy.”

She hopes having a blog and creating a presence on Facebook will enable her to get to more customers buying wine and finding the family business at various festivals they attend.

Ironically though, she doesn’t have a Facebook or Twitter account.

That’s because she has been discouraged by instructors in her secondary education program at Kutztown University from using social media sites because of the potential risk of driving away potential employers.

It’s one of the many potential of making yourself available to the world via a social media site.

Morgan Firestine, former Extension educator in Berks County, said one of the things she tells producers using blogs or other sites is to address negative comments made by others.

Even though it could present a farm or business in a negative light, Firestine said producers can turn a negative comment into a chance for healthy dialogue on a topic such as animal welfare or food safety.

“The most beneficial thing about your Facebook page is getting people to like it,” Firestine said. “It’s all really about linking and networking on Facebook.”

Time is another issue. Frankenfield laments the time it takes him to keep his Facebook page fresh, whether it be taking pictures on the farm to post or just writing an update.

“Trying to keep people engaged is a challenge,” he said. “The computer is becoming more part of my life, unfortunately.”

And he can’t point to his presence on Facebook as driving sales, at least not yet.

But he doesn’t regret at least making his presence known.

“I never had a negative comment I had to address. Don’t let a negative comment keep you from doing this,” he said. “The key, if you do delve into it, is to keep up with it. People like to know what is going on in the ag world.”

Being in front of a computer is not her comfort zone, but Trimbur said she feels that in a world where everybody has a computer and almost everybody has a web-capable cellphone, it is time for her to expand her horizons.

“Basically, this is another way to gain sales, which is why I’m here,” she said. “I thought I better be here to learn how to blog, tweet and Facebook.”

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