EmmaSwarthout01.jpg

Emma Swarthout pauses a moment with a herd member at El-Vi Farms.

How the public relates to the dairy industry affects how much they spend on dairy products. That’s why positivity is so important to groups like American Dairy Association North East, which recently named Emma Swarthout as director of dairy industry image.

In 2014, Swarthout had begun working as an industry relations specialist for the organization, which provides industry advocacy in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and parts of Virginia.

“It starts with consumer base and consumer demand, and how consumers get their information,” Swarthout said.

She said that as little as 10 years ago, the source of information shifted heavily to social media: easy to access, but not always accurate.

“Everyone can share their opinion for better or worse about food and how things are done on farms,” Swarthout said. “Only 2 percent of us work in animal agriculture. It creates a dynamic where there’s a lot of room for disconnect.”

Swarthout also sees an opportunity for educating the public, especially in light of the “locavore” trend of consumers seeking to become closer to the source of their food and understanding how their food is grown.

Social media provides a free way for dairy operators to share these insights, especially for a segment of agriculture that’s usually not open to public access.

“Show how milk is produced and how you care for your cows,” Swarthout said. “The ‘moveable middle’ is open to it. They see these things and can trust their dairy farmers once they follow them on social media.”

The “moveable middle” refers to the majority of people who hold a positive or neutral viewpoint on dairy. Of the remaining, roughly 7 percent are vegans and vegetarians with a negative opinion and, on the other end of the spectrum, 2 percent who actively work in agriculture.

“There are people who aren’t on the farm, but have ties to the farm and will promote it,” Swarthout said.

“Ninety-five percent of households still buy milk. More people like us than dislike us. Some of the most negative voices are the loudest. There’s lots of fear and fear-mongering,” she added.

Swarthout is the daughter of George Andrew, a partner at El-Vi Farms LLC, an operation in Newark, New York, that milks about 1,800 head. She grew up working with calves and later in herd health. She knows firsthand about the importance of cow health and comfort.

Swarthout also earned a degree from State University of New York Geneseo in communications, media and journalism with a minor in Spanish.

In her current roles — handling El-Vi’s social media and working with American Dairy Association — she communicates about everyday farm life and the merits of milk to the public through social media.

“Because people are so far removed from farming, you can’t just be on your farm and be a great farmer. You have to show them what you’re doing,” she said.

She recommends Facebook and Instagram because of each platform’s emphasis on visuals, their ease of use, and their ubiquity among social media users.

Simply ignoring social media can be a mistake.

“If someone Googles the farm and can’t find anything, it makes it harder for them to connect with you,” Swarthout said. “Or, they may find an old article. It makes it easy when you have a Facebook page. Update it regularly. They can interact with it and send direct messages.”

Using social media can also help farmers seem more relatable to other members of the community.

Cute animal pictures, beauty shots of the farm, milk-based recipes, everyday operations — all of these could provide material for social media posts.

Give photos context, she advised.

“When you post pictures in the parlor, let it (be) known that they’re only in there 10 minutes,” Swarthout said. “They may think that’s where they live, hooked up to machines. Be clear about what you’re posting.”

Some people may respond negatively. For those who simply don’t understand an aspect of farming, this could become a teachable moment. Respond simply and positively, she said.

Inflammatory comments should be removed and the poster’s future comments blocked. Farmers can also post community rules about unacceptable comments and automatically block posts that contain certain words indicating troublemakers. Avoid online battles with anti-farming activists.

Should your farm experience something that negatively affects the community, like a manure spill or recall, social media presence can actually help.

“The longer you’re on social media, the more you build a following and trust,” Swarthout said. “If something like a manure spill happens, it’s positive to have a longstanding Facebook community. You have members who follow your content and know you’re farming responsibly.”

Never poke fun at questions that seem silly to you. The person may know very little about farming and this could be your opportunity to sway some of the moveable middle to become pro-ag.

In addition to joining social media, Swarthout said more farmers are connecting with the public through farm tours, public speaking, upscale farmer-chef events and virtual tours such as those of American Dairy Association.

Swarthout and her husband, Christopher, live in Newark, three miles from El-Vi Farms. The couple wed last fall.

For more tips about using social media, Swarthout recommends going online to these websites: www.americandairy.com/for-farmers/dairyfan.stml or http://donschindler.com/executive-social-media-training.

Deborah Jeanne Sergeant is a freelance writer in central New York.