City folks just don’t get it! That’s the trademark for Farmers Only, the social networking/dating site launched in May 2005, claiming thousands of members looking for love. But as this site required access to the Internet, it used to be that it was the farmer who didn’t get it -- didn’t get an internet connection, that is. The American Farm Bureau says that only 24% of rural Americans have access to high speed Internet connections.
But now more market-based solutions are being offered to farmers and other rural residents, so now farmers are getting it. In fact, not only are they getting it but they are starting their very own social networking sites. Beef and peach farmer Tom Davenport from Hollin Farms in Delaplane, Virginia, founded Farmfoody.org, a website designed to connect farmers to their customers. So far, around 750 farms and foodies have signed on.
There is a growing awareness of the power that social networking sites hold, and for smaller communities like those in the local food movement, they are beginning to catch on. Localized sites are catching people’s attention and are transcending generic places like Facebook and MySpace. Niche groups are now eeking out their own private space in the world wide web.
Chris Anderson, writer for Wired magazine and author of The Long Tail, explains the concept of social networking sites: “social networking to me means the tracking of individual preferences and behavior and giving users the ability to draw upon implicit or explicit connections between them and other users to do something useful.”
Kitchen gardeners, for example, approximately 6,000 of them from 100 different countries, are doing something useful by logging onto Kitchen Gardners International, a site launched by Roger Doiron, a long time local food advocate living in Maine. KGI offers tips and info and all things gardening including a forum where people come to discuss things like organic pest control and what to do with those pesky rabbits who are eating all their home grown broccoli. How-to videos include subjects like growing garlic or making compost heaps.
Roger also oversees Northeast Food and Farm Network, a recent project of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG) that is working towards creating “a vibrant and sustainable regional food system in the Northeast,” which includes photos of featured members, job postings and forums.
But what kind of impact can this web experience have on the local food movement? Roger thinks this global, online network approach is actually the next natural step: “In our posts you are reading a wide range of topics which ultimately connects people to food systems change, and makes people aware of the challenges, but lets them know that there are very concrete things they can do which is as easy as planting a seed.”
Even farmer artists have their own online community. Mark Andrew Gravel, culinary arts student and Wendell Berry fan, once saw a food installation art project in Soho that inspired him to continue the connection with food and art. Hence, the Good Farm Movement, which is a visual art blog that, in Mark’s words, “celebrates the agrarian avant-garde: the art activist antagonist, the forward farmer preserver, the urban eater educator.” Mark says that his site is meant to “inspire people to learn about the political, economic, cultural, and social issues of food and farming. It’s about employing visual art to make the learning interaction less intimidating and more personal, which ultimately can leave a long and lasting impression.”
Then there is the Food System Creators Café, a “virtual coffee shop of food movement communicators,” which, according to founder Stephanie Pierce, is meant for “all who understand the value of and are committed to using communication to re-imagine and recreate our food system.” This site has been built on the now very popular Ning platform -- the proliferator of microsites, which, as of April 2008, hosts a total of 220,000.
These platforms, whether Word Press, Typepad or Ning etc., offer these micro-publishers a chance to connect not only to the viewer but connect the viewers to one another, and their social networking tools can only make these sites more useful and powerful to the consumer. As Chris Anderson says, “…there's a growing sense that elements of social networking is something all good sites should have, not just dedicated social networks. And that suggests a very different strategy--social networking as a feature, not a destination.”