Mike Haley marks the fifth generation on his family’s farm in West Salem, OH, but he’s hardly old school when it comes to technology. He’s part of a growing population of farmers who are becoming more connected through mobile technology and social media.
From tablet computers and smartphones to twitter and Facebook, mobile technology and social media are revolutionizing the way farmers access information in an instant from their tractors and pickups.
Want to see what other farmers are doing? Join a Facebook group. Stumped on how to assemble that pile of parts? Watch a how-to video on YouTube. Have a question about your crops? Just tweet it.
That’s exactly what Haley did when he noticed what he suspected was sudden death syndrome (SDS) in his beans. He took a photo with his smartphone and posted it to twitter, a micro blogging platform where users communicate in “tweets” of fewer than 140 characters and shortened Web links.
“Anyone know what’s going on with my soybeans? SDS? ow.ly/i/fTxv #agchat,” Haley tweeted.
A few minutes later, he had an answer from a plant pathologist four states away he’d never met. Jenny Rees, an Extension educator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, happened across Haley’s tweet because it contained a hashtag, or keyword preceded by #, which acts as a search function to help filter topics of interest. The shortened URL directed readers to his phone photo.
Rees and Haley communicated via twitter and Facebook – where Haley shared more photos – to eventually diagnose the condition as SDS.
Social media and mobile technology got Haley an answer almost instantly. In contrast, it wasn’t until the next day that his crop consultant could make it to the field to verify what Haley and Rees had already determined.
Rees helps many farmers via twitter, including Brandon Hunnicutt of Giltner, NE, one of the University of Nebraska’s on-farm research producers.
“Brandon had a corn rust problem last year that we were able to solve via twitter, too,” Rees says. “I shared what he should be looking for. It was common rust. He was wondering if it was southern rust.”
Hunnicutt also answers plenty of questions via social media. He uses twitter and Foursquare, a location-based social networking site, to report data from his water sensors to farmers in the Nebraska Ag Water Management Network. The posts also attracted attention from other growers.
Twitter, specifically, offers advantages in obtaining a wide array of information, Hunnicutt says.
Like most social-media users, Hunnicutt and Haley haven’t limited their activities to one platform. They also share ideas, ask questions and network with other growers through Facebook groups. Some groups are open to the public, while others are by invitation only. When a member shares a post in the group, everyone in the group receives a notification.
In one of Haley’s groups, farmers discuss crop conditions, rainfall, diseases and other agricultural concerns. The group updates appear in Haley’s news feed, and he even has updates forwarded to his email address so he never misses a conversation.
“When you’ve got several people working on a project or network I find myself using groups a lot,” he says.
“Many of my crop-consultant friends post something they’re seeing out in the field and say ‘Are you seeing this too?’” Rees says. “It’s been a great way to have discussions.”
Crop consultants and farmers also use Facebook Chat to ask Rees questions. “We chat about what we see in the fields in different parts of the state or even different states,” she says.
Beyond questions and conversation, they both use social media to keep up with news, markets and weather. “It gives me more timely information than emails or texts,” Hunnicutt says.
“A lot of times I can find out what’s going on in agriculture within minutes or hours after it happens and in print media it takes a little bit longer for that to get out,” Haley says, especially if you’re following the right people.”
Rees is one of those people. Beyond the newspaper and an email listserv, she also posts her columns to her blog and shares the link on her county Extension website, Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn.
“It goes out seven different ways to reach many more people than just in my local newspaper,” she says. “It’s allowed me to work smarter, not harder.”
Web-savvy farmers like Haley and Hunnicutt maintain blogs about their farms and follow other farmers’ experiences online.
Haley occasionally posts YouTube videos from his farm and watches agricultural and how-to videos.
Hunnicutt adds that YouTube also is a convenient way to see new farm equipment.
Both growers note the opportunities the social environment offers producers.
“You can see right away what somebody in Ohio or California is doing,” Hunnicutt says. “There’s a lot of information to be gained without much pain in gathering it.”
Haley agrees. “What really excites me is it’s nothing for me to converse daily with farmers across the globe.”
Rees says, “You make connections throughout the world that you would have never had before.”
Haley calls it his digital coffee shop. “It’s a place I can interact with other farmers and people off the farm. I can have intellectual conversations and along the way learn something. Hopefully they learn something from me in the process.”
Instead of only relying on information from officials, social media makes it easy for farmers to seek input from to peers, Hunnicutt says. “It’s allowed us to reach out to a broader spectrum to gain knowledge. We can seek out information and start conversations.”
Speed is especially helpful, Rees adds. “Because information is so fast, I have an opportunity to respond faster.”
Unlike the traditional coffee shop, technology makes staying connected easier than ever with mobile devices like tablet computers and smartphones. Haley and Hunnicutt’s mobile devices go everywhere they go, giving them constant access to social media, news, markets, weather and more.
Mobile applications make tasks on smartphones and tablets even easier. Hunnicutt also uses smartphone apps to start and stop irrigation pivots, monitor water sensors and measure growing-degree days.
Haley even has apps to measure wind speed and track commodity markets.
Hunnicutt says a constant Web connection increases productivity. If we’re out in the fields we can do something from the phone without interrupting what we’re doing, he says. The most notable advantage is being able to answer questions instantly, he adds.
“You get so busy on the farm that by the time you get back inside around the computer you forget something. If you need to figure something out that’s broken down you can access the answer right away,” Hunnicutt says.
Tablet computers add even more convenience to everyday tasks. Haley uses his tablet to take notes and log in to his desktop computer to check on bookwork.
Hunnicutt also totes his new tablet around the farm, but he’s no stranger to mobile computing. His family used PDAs a decade ago to record work hours and irrigation pivot data. They’re increasingly storing notes on their smartphones and tablet computers that can be accessed from any device.