Not so long ago, the big idea was for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System to build a website and populate it with content that farmers could access with a click or two of a mouse. Not anymore.
Now the big idea is to consistently update content on the ACES website and let farmers know about the new information that has been posted. The idea is to get relevant information to producers when they need it, no matter where they are, so that it will be more useful. These days, ACES is using social media to push its messages out to producers, a growing number of whom are familiar with apps, tweets, likes and shares.
The latest effort along those lines came last fall, when ACES introduced its Alabama Crops app, a free download for both iPhone and Android users. The app alerts producers when information is updated and then links them to the updates — an array of information ranging from crop production news to pest alerts to prices and upcoming field days and meetings.
It also provides a way for growers and others in the field to communicate directly with ACES through both text and photographs. ACES works closely with the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station (AAES) to ensure that information found through the app is current.
“More than anything, when they post bulletins or updates, the app is a reminder that the information is available on their website, ” says 52-year-old Brian Glenn, of Glenn Acres farm in Hillsboro. “From a farmer’s perspective, this is very beneficial, because it’s a precise way of letting you know specific crop information is out there and is new and updated.
“I used to go to the (ACES) website on my office computer, but you find yourself doing that on rainy days, and you might have missed something — a pest problem, a fungus, something going on across the state. The problem has always been getting the timely information into the farmers’ hands. The technology is great, but if we don’t know the information is out there, and don’t know what we’re looking for and don’t see it, then it sort of defeats the purpose.
“This app provides direct access to a wealth of information there without having to go look for what’s new, ” says Glenn, who farms corn, wheat, winter canola and soybeans. “It puts more and more information at our fingertips when we want it and need it, not necessarily when we sit down at a desk, so to speak.”
Being notified about pest outbreaks is the app’s biggest benefit for Andrew Gettys, 41, who farms cotton and peanuts in Macon County. “They (ACES) are real good about letting you know the latest about pests, ” Getty says. “You may not have scouted your crop for a few days and you can use the app to go to the website for the latest updates. It could be anything — a stink bug outbreak, plant bug or any number of different pests we are concerned about. If you don’t stay on top of it, you can have significant damage to your crops, and it can happen overnight.”
For years, ACES has been looking for more efficient ways of getting important information to producers and others with agricultural interests. Before developing the Alabama Crops app, ACES used Twitter to send updates to producers.
“This is something our producers had been asking for, really for the past five or six years, ” says Dale Monks, director of Research Operations Adm-Agriculture at ACES. “They were telling us that it’s good that we have all this information on our website, but when you go to that website and access that information, how do you know the information is new?
“With Twitter, when something new goes up on our website, we send a Twitter notice that there is new information, and there is a link to it. Our producers and crop consultants just don’t have the time to go looking for information. This is a way to push that information to them. So if someone subscribes to our Twitter page, then it automatically pushes information out to them. And our Twitter account is hooked up with our Facebook account, so if it shows up on Twitter, it’s going to show up on Facebook as well.”
Monks says ACES has about 250 Twitter followers and another 500 or so who have downloaded the Alabama Crops app — about 250 iPhone users and roughly the same number using the Android platform.
“For those who care why our food supply is safe and why it is efficient, I think they would appreciate the fact that we’re helping the producers be efficient by answering their questions quicker … and that translates into a more robust food supply and a more dependable food supply, ” Monks says.
“Having this information readily available helps us understand when there is a problem. If there is a pest problem, we can determine its extent, and that allows us to use the least amount of pesticides, for example, while treating the problem quicker. If it were 30 or 40 years ago, by the time we got the information out, a whole crop could literally be destroyed.”
Gettys and Glenn prefer the new app to Twitter, but that’s not to say that Twitter or Facebook aren’t important tools for some Alabama farmers.
“I use Facebook and Twitter, but Facebook is our main outlet, ” says Allie Corcoran, 28, who runs Backyard Orchards near Eufaula with her sister, Cassie Young. “We use it for everything — from when crops are ready to be harvested to events that we’re having. We’ve found that it beats all other advertising we can do. Advertising around here and in other areas, too, I’m sure, is way too expensive. That free outlet has definitely helped us and been very useful.
“I’ll post something and share it on my personal Facebook page and then share it with my friends and then they’ll share it, ” Corcoran says. “I had a post reach about 4, 000 people back in early April when we were starting to get strawberries in and we were announcing a big opening day. To reach that many people with just two shares is pretty awesome.”
Corcoran and Young grow strawberries, blueberries, peaches and vegetables and are fourth-generation farmers. When it comes to technology, they are the new breed. “All of this is brand new to my dad, ” Corcoran says. “The way he thinks is totally different from the way my sister and I think. It just blows his mind that so many people will see a post on Facebook and social media. He’s used to the newspapers and all that.”
For producers to get maximum results from their Facebook presence, Corcoran has these words of advice: like and share. “If people have a chance to go to a Facebook page, whether they realize it or not, when they like it and share it, friends see that and the word spreads so much faster. So, that’s what you want when people go to your Facebook page, like and share.”
Charlie Ingram and Tim Skipper are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Ingram is based in Birmingham and Skipper in Dothan.
text by charlie ingram • photos by Tim Skipper