For Tara Vander Dussen, improving public perceptions of the dairy industry began with showing people what she does as a farmer.
“It’s time to take charge of the narration,” said Vander Dussen, a dairy industry advocate whose online persona, the New Mexico Milkmaid, boasts more than 40,000 followers.
Vander Dussen, who runs a dairy farm with her husband in the Land of Enchantment, spoke at last week’s virtual Pennsylvania Dairy Summit.
Vander Dussen got into social media advocacy about five years ago, when her daughter was 2. She posted a question online about what kind of milk mothers were feeding their children, and she didn’t like the responses.
“Of the first three, one said she just gave her kids water, the next said she gave them coconut milk, and a third indicated her children were fed a blend of half milk and half oat milk,” Vander Dussen said.
She decided to start touting milk as a nutritious beverage and dairy farming as a benefit to the environment.
“North America has the lowest carbon footprint to produce a gallon of milk in the entire world,” Vander Dussen said. “We produce more food with less land and using less fuel.”
An environmental scientist by training, Vander Dussen has worked with dairy farms across the Southwest on federal regulatory compliance, water conservation and eco-friendly practices.
According to industry research statistics cited by Vander Dussen, 72% of consumers know nothing about agriculture, and 70% base their food purchases on how they believe food is grown.
Here’s where farmers’ personal stories come in. Many consumers love farmers and want to hear what they have to say.
Vander Dussen came to this conclusion after helping at a dairy promotion food truck in New York City a few years ago.
As she passed out grilled cheese and chocolate milk, many people told her how much they liked dairy products and seemed excited about simply talking with a farmer.
Consumers may be even more curious now than they were then because of 2020’s pandemic-related food-supply chain disruptions.
“The last year made us think about where food comes from,” Vander Dussen said.
In short, dairy farmers have a waiting audience if they want to shed light on their lifestyle — and contradict criticisms leveled by environmentalists and vegans.
“We need to stop playing defense and be proactive,” Vander Dussen said.
Before starting an agvocate social media account, farmers should think about which platform is right for them and what content they are going to post. It may include personal stories and photos from the person’s own farm, but Vander Dussen said the purpose of dairy promotion is broader than that.
“It’s about the dairy industry as a whole,” she said.
Increasingly, consumers want to be entertained while being educated, Vander Dussen said, citing the popularity of TikTok and YouTube. They also want to learn more about farmers and identify with what farmers do.
“Highlight the cool things we’re doing and show that we all care. Show the people behind the farms, that we are people just like them,” she said.
At the same time, the posts can show how the industry innovates, just as other businesses do.
And social media is far from the only outlet dairy farmers have.
Not everyone is comfortable presenting their business and their lives for all the world to see, but farmers can also promote the industry through farm tours and community events.
“Just be who you are,” Vander Dussen said. “Just show your day-to-day life.”