New-Style Farming: Reap What We So(-cial)

A Social Media ‘Why’ Story – and (WARNING) the longest post I’ve ever written…

When my family relocated from deep south New Orleans to northwest Arkansas, to say I experienced culture shock is an understatement. Even styles of teen cliques changed! One new-to-me clique, the ‘ropers’, was unlike any I’d experienced within a hundred miles of the Vieux Carre. These were kids who spent their weekends at the rodeo, were proud of big shiny belt buckles and donned tight Wrangler jeans. In New Orleans, I don’t recall ever running across rodeo grounds or Wranglers. We were Mardi Gras folks.

Upon entry to Arkansas, I also discovered that FFA stands for Future Farmers of America and that led to a twenty-year assumption that didn’t evolve until I recently tracked down Dr. Kate Shoulders, Associate Professor of Agricultural Education, Communications and Technology in the Bumpers College at the University of Arkansas, as she came highly recommended for and was eventually awarded a Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on innovative faculty members.

Prior to our meeting, I considered agriculture to be, well, agriculture.

Crops, pigs, farms, you know – FFA stuff. Regardless of our College of Agriculture’s sprawling presence in Fayetteville, as an undergrad it would never have occurred to me to pursue agriculture as a career path. I voiced this to Kate and she smiled and replied ‘right?’ and explained therein lies the problem. The very real, pressing, dire problem of today.

Kate refers to modern agriculture as ‘today’s ag’ and apparently, today’s ag ain’t your grandaddy’s ag.

She shares, “Arkansas’ agricultural industries need scientists, data analysts, financial advisors, communicators, and a range of other professionals to fill currently unfilled positions. The reality of Arkansas agriculture doesn’t fit the traditional picture of sows, cows, and plows, and people who view agriculture as an industry unchanged from its previous traditions are missing rewarding career opportunities in a beautiful state.” Who knew? Big business has wrapped its arms around Arkansas’ top industry (link: http://www.newsmax.com/FastFeatures/arkansas-industries-strongest-economy/2016/01/20/id/710235/) which adds “around $16 billion to the state’s economy annually” and produces half of the rice in the U.S.

While today’s agriculture still embodies FFA’s original style, it clearly also includes institutionalized business, finance, human resources, innovation, marketing, technology. Basically, any department or career path found within a Fortune 500 company is also found within the business of agriculture. Based on most people’s misconception of the ag industry, clearly new branding is needed for, based on Shoulders’ research, to support the state of Arkansas’ top industry and assuming current student retention rates stick, the University of Arkansas agricultural program needs an influx of 1500 new ag freshmen annually. How in the world do we attract this historically niche flock of students? And how do we pull them from the areas that are not only hardest to reach (example, the Arkansas Delta) but the richest in agricultural dedication?

Here’s where technology meets industry.

We start at the root. We start at a level that can most deeply impact the recruiting, educating and retaining of future ’todays ag’ leaders – we start in K-12 with a current laser focus on high school teachers. Dr. Shoulders has teamed up with colleagues Dr. Brian Myers, Professor and Chair of Agricultural Education and Communication at the University of Florida and Dr. Marshall Baker, Assistant Professor of Agricultural Education, Communications and Leadership at Oklahoma State University and together they conceptualized and introduced a collaborative podcast called ‘Owl Pellets’, geared to reaching our teachers who have the power to increase the visibility of this (new-to-many-of-us) industry.

Per Dr. Brian Myers at the University of Florida, “We must be preparing the next generation to meet the demands placed on the agriculture industry today and in the future.  To have them begin to think about producing food in sustainable ways. One of the key tools we have preparing today’s youth for this challenge is school-based agricultural education courses and the agriculture teachers that deliver those courses. Teaching is hard work. Teachers face a myriad of challenges each day. We realized that research-based solutions to those problems were out there, but just not getting into the hands of the agriculture teachers in a format they could use. That is where the idea for Owl Pellets: Tips for Ag Teachers podcast came from. We want to be the conduit to connect the hardworking agriculture teachers in the schools with the outstanding research being done at our universities.”

These researchers not only know their business, they know (and respect) their audience. You show me a high school teacher in any discipline and I’ll show you an overtasked, under-resourced advocate for tomorrow’s leaders. Dr. Baker of Oklahoma State University explains, “I care about the Owl Pellets project because it gives my academic work relevance.  So many times, academia can be an exercise of amassing publications and grant dollars in preparation for the looming tenure review.  I want my work to be more than that.  Owl Pellets requires us to “pellet” research in a way that teachers are interested.  Our team has really shifted the way we view our own research when we consider if anyone will care about what we are studying.”

The Owl Pellets podcast is outreach wrapped in technology.

This is researchers meeting our high school ag-centric teachers where they are – in the classroom, at their homes, on their morning commutes, at the gym, in line at Target. Accessible 24/7 on any device, these video shorts are geared specifically to helping build and bolster our state’s future workforce through the teachers teaching them. Introducing new and innovative ways to package curriculum delivery so that high school students can and will consume it. Imagine the assembly-line: researchers across the nation recognizing the only way to grow ag is to build a workforce to adequately support it, then packaging engaging teaching tips and tricks for delivery to teachers teaching in the trenches, identifying and building tomorrow’s ag workforce. Owl Pellets for Ag produces one new video every other week. Each week highlights a critical conversation like what if high school ag ed didn’t exist? How would this impact overall the future and sustainability of ag as an industry? It is imperative that high school teachers be aware of the impact they make and the role they play in the sustainability of entire industries. Thus, Owl Pellets chooses to primarily focus on teaching methods.

In some areas, like Oklahoma, the drive for culture continuity is there. Per Oklahoma State University’s Dr. Marshall Baker, “Agriculture remains the cultural fabric of Oklahoma.  Yes, many in Oklahoma continue to raise the agricultural products that support a growing population, but agriculture is also a culture.  My wife and I were both raised on farms – though we no longer live on farms, that culture defines us.  Our children will show market lambs.  Why?  Because grandma has dreamed of seeing her grandchildren in the show ring, county fairs are a family tradition, and we want our boys to know about death, life, work, sacrifice, and family.  As production agriculture creeps into a more corporate venture, we see “agriculture” as our heritage.  We want to maintain that culture.”

Meanwhile in the land of Disney, Dr. Bryan Myers explains, “Most people think of beaches and theme parks when they think of Florida. However, agriculture has a major economic impact in this state, just behind tourism in total dollars. There are more than 47,000 commercial farms and ranches in this state that manage almost 9.5 million acres. The vast majority of these operations are family owned and operated.” In a state where the mouse runs the house, it can be much more difficult to attract students to agriculture and the first step and bolstering our teachers’ toolbox on how to engage and steer students to a truly viable industry.

I’m of the technology C-suite. Why do I care about any of this? Why did my interaction with Dr. Shoulders pack such a punch for me? Well, it’s two-fold.

First of all, aside from the fact that it unraveled the ag puzzle for me a bit, her work is a strong, impactful example of the power of social media.

With two Minecraft and Roblox-obsessed elementary aged kids at home, even I from time to time question good versus evil as it pertains to social media. This drills home the good. The power. The brilliance of a free tool, shareable with all, managed by content creators, delivering researched best practice geared toward a seemingly non-techy industry that, if not staffed and led, can obliterate an entire swath of Americana in a terrible, lasting way, handing over our leadership reins in an area our nation has forever excelled. I can’t make a much better argument for excellent use of technology in a real-world scenario than that. That is the business-side reason that I care. The fun side? Dr. Shoulders and her partners’ podcast and cohesive online presence is simply cool. It has introduced me to industry foreign territory and reminded me, once again, the importance of sharing knowledge and collaboration and that taking the time to do these things has exponential value. And the delivery vehicle? Social media.

Secondly, while many clutch their pearls at the very thought of cars driving themselves, while a select few self-proclaimed bleeding edgers consider themselves quite ‘ahead of it all’ for driving cars that handle parallel parking automagically and while – as of last year – the most ooh’s and ah’s at even CES came from the computerized flying car realm, I think it’s time to point out that farmers have been using computer-controlled, self-driving tractors since the 1980’s.

Those overall-clad farmers we see in the local grocery stores scratch their heads at a population terrified by and/or enamored with the discussion of self-driving cars as they’ve been mastering it for almost forty years.

Why should you care? You can model this. You can learn about an industry that isn’t what you likely assumed. You can wrap your mind around why research matters and why education plays such a critical role in advancing our nation. You can, as a non-tech person, wrap your mind around how social media can be and is being used for good.

In a carefully grown nutshell, rural brain drain is real. And we need to put a boot in stopping our best and brightest from leaving our rural areas and gifting their talents to other regions. Who better to fuel and grow Arkansas’ new ag than our own across the state, our delta region folks where agriculture is nearly an established bloodline. Keep the ties and talent in our region.

And for those that think, meh, rice? Our states, our nation, depends on agriculture to grow. With topics like food insecurity and balancing that with the environmental sustainability, it’s not giant leap to realize agriculture can impact grand worldwide problems.

Meanwhile, I’m learning that the self-understated agriculture industry, though seemingly homespun and visibly traditional, is quite possibly the most innovative, tech-adoptive, future-savvy industry in existence.

This is the power of social media when used thoughtfully and deliberately. Don’t forget that its reach is vast; use it to your advantage especially on things that matter. Did you learn something today about agriculture? Did this piece dispel assumptions? You can thank the power of social media for that. Now let’s enjoy watching a savvy industry sustain itself through social media outreach in a smart, deliberate way.

Learn more about Owl Pellets for Ag on their Facebook page: (https://www.facebook.com/OwlPelletsforAg/


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