One year ago I was contemplating the idea of agriculture folks joining  a conversation on Twitter, similar to what I had seen in action on “#journchat.” I discussed the idea with some friends in the business, tried to evaluate how such a conversation could connect people around the food plate and wondered if it really was something ag people would “do.”  ‘No risk, no reward’ is a personal philosophy, so on April 6, 2009, I announced we were going to try out a moderated streaming conversation known as “#AgChat” on Twitter on April 7, 2009.

The ride that has ensued was certainly not what I could have ever projected or expected.  Thanks to the agricultural and food community, we’ve had over 2,000 people from eight countries and five continents participate.  Today I just finished moderating our first international chat AfriAgChat for Africa and interest has been expressed in Europe. The first AgChat a year ago had 20 or so people, which quickly escalated to 75 and has now grown to more than 190 participants a last month. Typically there are around 130 people who send 1,500 to 2,000 messages over  the two-hour period. Beyond the weekly discussion, AgChat has served as a meeting point for people interested in ag issues on Twitter.

So do the numbers make it successful?  Absolutely not.  The real measure of success is the level of engagement by the agricultural community, our pundits and people buying our product. In my book, success is about the people involved and  the conversations we’ve had. I’ve seen corn, soybean, dairy, beef, poultry, cotton, eggs, pork and wheat farmers & ranchers join together in a singular conversation about tough issues our business needs to address. We’ve talked about media coverage on agriculture, biotechnology as a part of food system, points on animal welfare, the finer details of soil, had consumer panels and ways to connect with neighbors.  Agribusiness people, farmers, consumers ranchers and friends of regular “agchatters” have joined the conversation to learn from each other.  Likewise, FoodChat  (on the third Tuesday of each month) have helped foster more conversations on both sides of the food plate.

Are the conversations always easy? Not a chance! In fact, the conversations sometimes make me want to pull my hair out – just like the goings-on in a real-life community. Do we have people who try to point fingers and try to make this be “big ag”,  a money-making scandal or the like? Yes, just as you can find in almost any group.  Yet the incredible power of the human spirit outweighs the negativity, particularly when I consider the team of dozen or so amazingly talented people who continue to volunteer their time to guest moderate, run data, pull archive info, provide insight, etc.

When I reflect back on the year, I’m SO very thankful to the community in AgChat for teaching me these lessons.

  • Agricultural advocacy, when done well, is about momentum. This has actually been a turning point in my business; “agvocacy” is not about what “I” do as much as what I can try to inspire others to do.
  • Food is incredibly hot – and amazingly political.  If you ever doubt that, check people opining on the local food system, organic, biotechnology and community supported agriculture.
  • Ideas and energy flows where people come together around a common cause.  And those people affect change.
  • Communities can be developed online and relationships are formed through hundreds of conversations, even if people have never met face-to-face. And “tweet-ups” are pretty fun when people meet for the first time!
  • Being flamed isn’t always a bad thing – it gives you the chance to see others in your community in action. And frankly, it’s amazing how much people can quote you (a risk of being a professional speaker).
  • The personal story outweighs the issue. My heart has been touched by those who have put their stories out there – and those are the people who inspire me to continue putting the hundreds of volunteer hours into AgChat and FoodChat.
  • Our ag community has a really hard time with being in listen-only mode. We’ve become so used to being attacked that we sometimes can’t see that a question is only a question asked by a person who doesn’t know any farmers. We need to think offense instead of defense.
  • Likewise, self-proclaimed food system experts aren’t necessarily open-minded about hearing from the people in the business of raising food, fuel, feed and fiber.
  • Sometimes it just takes a different tool or question to get the conversation going. And once in a while, your community teaches that an idea can grow when people engage.
  • Pundits frequently offer great motivation to keep the conversations about farming – by the people working with land and animals – going.

Do I think AgChat is the answer to all of our problems, the singular place to be on Twitter or the only thing going in social media? Not a chance! However, it has proven to engage people across agriculture, empower them to have conversations and created collaborations.  And it also makes me question what’s next – how can we build upon this type of community to celebrate in a way that’s most meaningful for agriculture? I’d love your ideas on that.