What do you use Facebook for? Messaging your friends and family? Looking at 30-minute videos of baby animals sneezing? How about ordering vegetables from a local farm? No, we’re not talking about FarmVille here - but we’re entering an age where physical crops can be purchased through digital platforms. Something unheard of just a few decades ago.
In Bowling Green, Kentucky, we visited a farm owned and operated by Michele and Nathan Howell and learned all about their back-to-basics approach to farming. They don’t have the big machinery or 12-story tanks you might find at a more industrial location but they’re still able to help feed their local communities. As Nathan mentioned to us, they like to keep it refreshingly “old school”; the whole family helps with farming (including their children), and they rely on tried-and-true knowledge of climate, irrigation, and soil. They’re quite proud of these facets of their farm and believe it’s a big selling point as to why the locals come to them instead of heading to the nearest supermarket.
So we were surprised when Michele told us how they find a lot of their customers.
“To be honest, [social media] is how we sell our product and that’s how we connect with our customers, is through sharing what we do online, sharing that we have it for sale. And I think just as we saw those things coming about in the last six or seven years is when we realized that we could connect to customers that way.”
Yes, the modern social network that lives on our computer screens and phones is an important part of a family farm’s business. When Facebook first came out, it was limited to college campuses only. Now, we have seen it stretch beyond universities, beyond cities, and into more rural areas. In fact, in 2016, Facebook rolled out a platform called OpenCellular that provides the foundation for more rural communities to get connected. Their goal is to have the entire world connected online and, so far, they’ve been doing a pretty good job of that.
For years, people who lived outside of urban areas had to wait for solid, reliable internet access to come to them. Since it’s now more readily available with internet and cellular access spreading every day, they’re able to connect with others in a way that simply wasn’t possible before. Long drives have been replaced with instant messages and tweets. It’s only natural this connectivity would spread to other community-based activities. No need to drive to the nearest farm or make a phone call to get the veggies you want - simply click a link and send a message. DONE!
For the Howell’s, this development of technology has lead to their farm staying afloat. Social media has removed some of the roadblocks that prevented potential customers from placing orders. The biggest challenge for just about any business is getting in front of new faces. After all, how can people buy from you if they don’t even know you exist in the first place? With Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the big networks, it’s easy to place a few digital advertisements - and usually, cost effective to boot. Word of mouth is also easier to spread by simply posting about it. Forget meeting up with someone in person to tell them about how much you love your new CSA; type up a few sentences, click the “Share” button and now everyone in your social circle can instantly see how much you’ve been loving your variety of fresh, hand-picked lettuce.
With Facebook, the Howell’s are also able to keep their customers updated on what’s happening with their farm. It’s never been easier to talk about what new crops are in season, new deals they have going on, or even updates on when they’ll be open for business. Sharing is effortless and straightforward, which is why the Howell’s were able to build a digital community around their farm. People can check in with them as much as they want at any time of day - or night!
Keep in mind, these are all things we can technically do in “real life”. You can post messages on bulletin boards for the community, you can put up your operating hours on your front door and more or less accomplish the same things. These social networks have taken these old ways and moved them to a platform in the digital cloud. In doing so, they’ve enabled family farms to do business in a new fashion, which keeps their traditions alive in the modern world.
This intersection of old and new fascinates us and is part of what Reconnecting Roots is all about. What are some older methods of living life that we can benefit from reconnecting to? And what are the new ways that amplify what we’ve been doing before? The Howells have given us a look at a perfect marriage of modern technology and classical ideas of farming - and we can’t wait to see what “crops” up next.