Farm News staff writer
LANESBORO – While the population of Lanesboro has dropped from roughly 280 residents to 125 in the past 50 years, this Carroll County town is a growing community online, thanks to the power of social media.
“We have more than 820 friends on Facebook,” said Carol Befort, who grew up in Lanesboro in the 1950s and now lives in Birmingham, Ala. “That’s a lot more people than ever lived in Lanesboro at any one time.”
These online friends range from long-time Lanesboro residents to descendants of former Lanesborites who are three to four generations removed from their rural Iowa roots, noted Befort, who helped create the “Lanesboro Iowa” Facebook page in November 2010.
The page got started when some former Lanesboro residents began scanning and sharing yearbook photos from the town’s school, which closed in the 1950s. As people started digging through old family photo albums and began e-mailing pictures related to Lanesboro’s history, they turned to Facebook to share these images with even more family and friends.
“We started seeing the younger generation come on board to inquire about their ancestors,” said Kathy Williams, a Lanesboro native and childhood friend of Befort who now lives near Wichita, Kan. “Reconnecting with family and friends is what this is all about.”
Lanesboro’s story is part of a much bigger trend that’s reshaping communication around the globe. By the end of 2012, Facebook is projected to have more than one billion active users, said Chris Heiler, a social media consultant with Landscape Leadership from Texas who spoke at Iowa State University earlier this year.
“Facebook isn’t just for high school kids who want to gossip,” said Heiler, who noted that roughly 50 percent of the U.S. population is on Facebook, and approximately 40 percent of these users are between the ages of 35 and 65. “Businesses know that more of their customers are using it all the time.”
Ralston-based cooperative West Central launched its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/WestCentral) in March 2011 to enhance its communication strategy, which includes radio spots, the website, text messaging and traditional printed items ranging from postcards to brochures.
“We wanted to extend our reach and communicate with an audience we were perhaps missing with more traditional mediums,” said Sarah Dorman, communication specialist for West Central.
Dorman updates the company’s Facebook page at least once a day. “We want the information we’re sharing to be newsworthy, relevant and interesting. We know people are busy and we don’t want to waste their time. I try to include links to articles that pertain to people’s farming operations and even items of general interest.”
The timeliness of social media is a plus, Dorman noted. “If there’s a big swing in the market or a sudden weather concern, print and radio won’t communicate the necessary information fast enough. Social media, however, is immediate. Social media also lets us share more, whether it’s a relevant photo or a link to important additional information.”
It has been interesting to learn about the audience that visits West Central’s Facebook page, Dorman said. “We have a great following that’s made up of customers, farm spouses, students and people who are just plain interested in agriculture.”
Pork board, YouTube, Twitter
Facebook isn’t the only social media site creating a wealth of opportunities for rural America to tell its story. The online video sharing site YouTube continues to transform the way people view the world, said Andrew Clark, a marketing professional from Des Moines ,who spoke at the 2012 Agribusiness Showcase.
“YouTube is now the second largest search engine on the planet, second only to Google. More companies are using YouTube as a way to get their messages out.”
The National Pork Board joined this online conversation in 2008 when it debuted its YouTube channel at: www.youtube.com/PorkCheckoff.
“The goal of this channel is to spread the positive messages about modern pork production, with farmers telling their stories,” said Teresa Roof, manager of public relations for the National Pork Board, which also has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/theporkcheckoff that is geared toward farmers.
The National Board Pork also began using the social media site Twitter (@factsaboutpork) when the H1N1 crisis erupted in 2009.
The Pork Board communicated through Twitter to encourage media and consumers to stop using the term “swine flu” and to share facts about H1N1.
“We want to provide our side of the story before someone else can. It’s also helpful for us to listen to what others are saying about agriculture so we can be prepared,” Roof said.
Social media offers a powerful tool that helps farmers’ voices be heard, Roof said, who noted the National Pork Board has social media training materials available to pork producers.
“Consumers are interested in where their food comes from,” she said, “and our research shows that consumers trust farmers.
“Whether you’re a pork producer, cattle producer or grain farmer, we all need to stand united when it comes to agriculture. Social media is one very easy way to do that.”
Social media also strengthens the ties that keep people connected, said Befort. Facebook inspired her Lanesboro friends to host a potluck at the Methodist Church in Lanesboro in 2011 so they could reconnect with each other. The event was such a hit they plan to gather again in Lanesboro this weekend.
“People often thank me and say, ‘You don’t know how important Lanesboro’s Facebook page is to me.’ We need to keep sharing our stories and photos so the spirit of this town-and rural Iowa-doesn’t die,” Befort said.
You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at email@example.com.