When Derrick Josi first ventured into social media, he was in defensive mode, correcting misconceptions about agriculture.
Now, the Tillamook dairy farmer takes a more positive and pro-active approach by reaching out to urban consumers.
He understands why many farmers avoid social media.
“Farmers, the vast majority of them, just want to farm. They don’t want to deal with groups that are trying to change our way of life,” he said. “Who in their right mind wants to deal with people like that?”
Even so, Josi posts to his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts on a daily basis with the goal of interacting with urbanites who may otherwise never speak with a farmer.
“Those are the people, whether we like to admit it or not, who make the laws that affect us,” he said. “Those are the people the activists are trying to sway.”
Josi has accumulated nearly 150,000 followers over the past three years across those three social media platforms, allowing metropolitan audiences to see firsthand how he runs his family’s century-old dairy operation in Tillamook.
The decision to become an online advocate for agriculture came about after Josi realized that he was only fueling the popularity of farm critics by commenting on their posts with his personal accounts.
Combating activists on their turf was “counterproductive” because social media companies design their algorithms to reward accounts that attract comments, he said.
By trying to correct misconceptions, Josi saw that he was only adding to his adversaries’ prominence. Instead, he launched “TDF Honest Farming” on Facebook — a reference to Tillamook Dairy Farmer — and became a much more public persona than he’d had with his personal profile.
“It boosts the message you’re trying to get out instead of giving them more reach,” Josi said.
It’s often repeated in agricultural circles that the average consumer is several generations removed from the farm. The way Josi sees it, the reverse is also true: Farmers are several generations removed from the average consumer.
Social media lets farmers and consumers get reacquainted despite effectively coming from different cultures, he said. “They get to see farmers are just normal people too.”
When connecting with urban consumers, Josi tries to have a conversation rather than engaging in “agsplaining.”
Farmers tend to talk about numbers and science, “agsplaining” why people’s perceptions are incorrect rather than really listening to them, he said.
“These are the facts, so you should just leave us alone,” Josi said, summarizing the mindset. “People don’t want to hear the facts. They want to feel good.”
Rather than expound on the technical aspects of safely spraying glyphosate herbicide, for example, Josi tells followers that he wouldn’t use any product that could harm his own kids.
“It resonates a lot more with people,” he said.
Though Josi encourages other farmers to delve into social media, he’s loathe to dispense advice on what they should do or how they should behave.
Early on, he got plenty of tips about social media that eventually got discarded. Everybody needs to figure out their own way of operating, or the interaction won’t seem authentic, he said.
For instance, Josi said he was voted “most sarcastic” in high school and embraces this side of his personality online.
“If you’re going to do social media, it has to be who you are,” he said.
That said, Josi recommends a time limit for interacting on social media to avoid being absent from family and friends in real life.
Going down the “rabbit hole” of endlessly debating with one person about a subject is also a waste of time, he said. There are times it’s just better to ignore contentious personalities.
“It’s a good thing to do in life in general,” he said.
The basic message that Josi tries to get across is simple: Dairy farmers are trying to do a good job for cows and consumers. They’re not out to ruin the environment or abuse cows, and they’re operating more sustainably than ever before.
Life on the farm does have some unpleasant realities — such as having a cow keel over — but that’s not necessarily indicative of mistreatment.
“Having a dead animal does not mean you’re a bad farmer,” Josi said. “Everybody has animals that die.”
Because savvy social media users can easily suss out unsupported or exaggerated claims, Josi bases his statements about animal welfare on research that’s verifiable.
In some cases, this process has even prompted him to improve his own operations, such as adjusting animal care practices due to findings by acclaimed livestock researcher Temple Grandin.
“You’d better be willing to answer the tough questions,” he said.
Given how closely his videos are scrutinized, Josi has also become more aware of his surroundings and the appearance of the farm.
Over time, he’s also developed a thicker skin as the result of encountering criticism in his posts and videos.
“I’ve gotten used to the abuse and attacks, so I kind of have an ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn’ attitude now,” Josi said, noting that he does draw the line at threats to himself or his family.
As social media technology progresses, Josi expects that interactions online will become evermore immersive.
Virtual reality goggles and cameras that are capable of recording in 360 degrees at once can allow people in Chicago or New York to be instantly transported to the dairy farm in Tillamook.
“That will only get better with time,” Josi said.
Technological improvements may also skew the battlefield between farmers and online activists who want to convince the public to adopt a plant-based diet.
Animal rights nonprofit groups are often well-funded and can afford the latest in cameras, drones, and editing equipment, improving their ability to reach consumers, he said.
“I can talk until I’m blue in the face but some of these groups have millions of dollars to spend. I don’t,” he said.
For that reason, Josi said he’d like to see major agribusiness firms financially support social media efforts that are effective at teaching people about agriculture.
Social media outreach does require time and energy, but compensation is available to those who’ve found success.
While Josi said he never expected to become more than one of many “small voices in agriculture,” he’s now supplementing his dairy income with advertising and speaking engagements.
“I’ve got a tiger by the tail and I’m trying to see where it takes me,” he said.