No. 15 Article 1/July 2, 2009

Changing Communication Methods in Agriculture

Since we are approaching a holiday weekend, I thought it was a good time to ease our minds from discussions about just crop-related issues and to spur thinking and garner some feedback about the Bulletin and other needs for University extension specialists to adapt to the changing times in communication.

First, let me explain a little more about myself as the editor of the Bulletin. I consider myself a full-fledged member of "Generation X" from a stereotypical standpoint, but my long duration of education has left me to understand much of the rationale of my younger cohorts, known as the Millennial Generation. My continual need to question and to understand things from a position of cynicism before I become a believer means I don't consider myself an "early adopter" of technology. I am also not a self-proclaimed expert when it comes to the "latest and greatest" in technology. But my attitude has always left me intrigued at the faith of my Millennial cohorts that each new gadget would become the next best thing since sliced bread. Now, as the most junior of faculty members primarily charged to extend information to the people of Illinois, I find it imperative to use every form of effective media to distribute information to a clientele with ever-expanding needs for effective reception.

Methods and tools used to communicate are changing worldwide, a reality that has not excluded agriculture. Things are changing so fast that it is hard to keep up with all the "new stuff" and determine how advancing technologies can be used to help your farm or small agricultural business. I suspect that some new tools and methods will fade out with time, and not having spent energy understanding or learning to use them might be a benefit to some. However, the greatest benefits will be accrued by early adopters who can continue to improve the volume and efficiency of news and information they receive. You can probably remember life without computers, cell phones, digital cameras, and the Internet, but would your work today be as efficient without these luxuries? Do most of us even consider those items luxuries, or have they become necessities for our daily operations?

In issue 2 of the Bulletin (April 3), I wrote about the newsletter's new RSS feed and suggested some ways to use it to receive our articles and other content from agricultural websites and blogs. I'd like to discuss a few more ways that communication is changing in agriculture and expanding far beyond websites and e-mail. Many of these changes have opened up instant connections with business and extension, right down to the farm level.

The emergence of "new media" and "social media" has created rapid changes. New media encompasses the many different means of electronic communication made possible by computer technologies (in contrast to "old media," including print newspapers and magazines). Social media refers to the use of digital technologies by individuals to socialize online and to share personal ideas, thoughts, news, information, and content, both between individuals and among groups.

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter--you hear them referred to constantly these days. But what should we pay attention to? As editor of the Bulletin, and as a new extension crops specialist, I find myself thinking frequently about how we should incorporate changing technologies to best serve our clientele. Blogs, or web-based information and opinion sites, are an increasing popular way for extension professionals to share information. These are just a few of the blogs published by extension professionals that I follow: The Soy Report from the University of Wisconsin, Iowa Farmer Today's CropWatch Blog, Grain Crops Update from the University of Kentucky, and the U of I's own Farmgate.

How about Facebook--is there a use for it among farmers? Between January and April of this year, Facebook membership increased from 150 to 200 million people, with the fastest-growing age group being over 35. Facebook is being used as a social tool among many agriculture-minded individuals: interest groups like the many state Farm Bureaus, science interest groups like the Weed Science Society of America, and less formal groups, ncluding "I'm an agronomist."

And how about Twitter? I don't know of any extension specialists who are yet using "tweets" to educate clientele (140 characters might just be too limiting for us long-winded types), but several of the major agricultural companies use Twitter to promote products and engage farmers in informational forums. (And if you think farmers don't connect in forums online, you haven't been to AgTalk). In some regard Twitter makes a lot of sense because farmers (and their cell phones) are very mobile, while many of the other media platforms require being at a computer with a high-speed Internet connection. The most skilled of "techies" use all these media platforms and have them so highly intertwined that when they post to one they update all the others. What do you use?

I have written this article to educate, but more importantly to spur interest and promote feedback about how we should be connecting to farmers and professional agronomists across Illinois. If you have comments, please send me an e-mail at M. Davis

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