Using Social Media to “Agvocate” for Farmers and Scientists

Using Social Media to “Agvocate” for Farmers and Scientists
Interview with Dr. Lindsay Chichester

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Dr. Lindsay Chichester is one of a growing number of online “agvocates” who are sharing information about agriculture from the perspective of farmers and scientists. We caught up with her to learn more about her work, and how social media plays a role in furthering the conversation about food and agriculture.

Tell us about your background.
I was raised on our family’s cattle and sheep ranch in Northern California, and was a 4-H member for 10 years. While pursuing my PhD in Systems Agriculture, I began looking at communication and the media, and how we can better tell the whole story around agriculture.

Today, I am an Extension Educator at the University of Nevada, and am Dr. Lindsay of the Ag with Dr. Lindsay blog, and Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. I use social media to share a mix of personal and professional content, including information about livestock and agriculture systems, commentary on current research, and stories and images from my life.

Your website and social media activities often focus on educating the public about agriculture. What prompted you to became an “agvocate”?
There are so many misconceptions around agriculture. Consumers are very concerned about how their food is produced, grown and raised, but I wondered where they were getting their information. When you are three-to-four generations removed from the farm, it can be hard to know if what you are seeing shared on social media is true. Through my social media presence, I can present information from multiple sides, offer reputable, verifiable resources, and ask people to make a decision based on the facts. I never tell people what they should think, but my pro-agriculture stance does come through.

Why is social media an effective communication tool for this topic?
Blogging and social media are a great venue for personalizing the story. 68 percent of the population has some sort of smart device and people are online all the time. Social media makes them accessible, and gives me an opportunity to be as transparent and human with them as possible.

Does being outspoken about a sometimes controversial topic ever cause you concern?
In instances like the report that came out from the World Health Organization (WHO) about carcinogen levels in meat, I feel like it is my duty to go through the reports and point out biases and poor science. I know I will get blowback from some people, but others thank me for doing the work to find the truth. I also talk about animal welfare and care. There are videos that make it look like animals are being taken care of poorly — when in fact they aren’t — but people get very emotional. And people understand very little about GMOs, and misinformation gets them riled up.

I can’t avoid these issues just because they are difficult. There is no black-and-white in agriculture. It is hard to talk livestock without plant science or without the environment. Sometimes you have someone who is appreciative of me directing them to a resource, but sometimes the person doesn’t actually want to have a conversation, they just get angry, and then you have to walk away. I just keep with the science, the research and my personal experience.

What are some common misconceptions about agriculture that you’d like people to better understand?
I’d like to dispel the idea that agriculturists are just in it to make money. Some do make money, but the average income for a farmer in this country is less than $50,000 per year. People see 300 acres and a lot of equipment and think that means someone is making a lot of money, but they don’t understand the investment that is required to run a farm/ranch.

I’d also like people to get away from the idea that “factory farms” dominate agriculture today. People use that phrase without knowing what is means. The truth is that families own 88% of farms/ranches.

And I want people to realize that livestock, for the most part, have room to move and be comfortable. When someone approaches me with a claim that these animals are all mistreated, I will often ask them where they live and encourage them to visit a farm or ranch near them. I will even offer to reach out to their local farmer or rancher myself and make an introduction for them. They never take me up on it, but I will continue to offer.

What has to happen to bridge the gap between those involved in agriculture and science, and those who are far removed from the farm and lab?
First, I’d like to see the industry stop pitting itself against each other. The reality is that we are all in this together. Farmers, input providers, technology developers, and the general public all share similar goals for agriculture — to grow enough food to feed the global population, and to preserve our earth.

Second, we have to challenge ourselves to talk with new audiences. The agriculture world is getting much better at sharing our stories, and more people are talking on social media, but we sometimes speak to an audience that already agrees with us. We have to create more opportunities to meet and share our stories with people outside of the industry with whom we might not otherwise interact. It really does make a difference.