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Twitter, “felfies” and everyday tech on the farm: Extension encourages innovation

When’s the last time you took to Twitter to research local crop yields?

Or used Google Earth to map soil types on 100 acres of land?

Despite their reputation as conduits for selfies and the new teen slang, common online platforms are being converted by a growing group of farmers into tools that help raise safe, tasty meat and produce to keep the world fed.

Extension agent Paul McKenzie aims to help these tech trends grow in North Carolina. His “Mapping Your Farm With Google Earth” talk drew about two dozen attendees at February’s Successful Small Farms Opportunities Conference in Louisburg. McKenzie explained uses for the free software — from crop rotation tracking to marking access roads — then demonstrated how to tag property landmarks on a handheld GPS.

A farmer in the front row raised his hand. “I use an app for that,” he said.

“Even better,” McKenzie replied.

About 70 percent of United States farms and ranches have access to the internet, according to a 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Of that, 36 percent of all farms in the South use the internet to conduct business, the lowest number in the country.

McKenzie and other Extension agents are spreading the word about tech resources for every step of the farm-to-plate process. At the Louisburg conference, lunch’s keynote speaker was Griffe Youngleson, CEO of Farmzie, a smartphone application that connects farmers directly to their customers. And at the Fifth Annual Piedmont Grown Conference on March 10, keynote speaker Ben Hartman explained how to use ‘lean principles’ originally developed by the Japanese automotive industry to run farms.

“Embracing technology can do nothing but enhance [farmers’] operations,” Currituck County Extension Director Cameron Lowe said.

For Extension agents and specialists, problems that used to require a farm visit and collection of samples can now often be solved with a $15 magnifying plug-in to a smartphone camera and an email to the right research laboratory. On Twitter, McKenzie follows other Extention agents around the country, learning about resources and picking up instant notification of fast-spreading pest issues.

Farmers are all over Twitter, whose increasing agricultural user base creates an information exchange that is “pretty fascinating,” McKenzie said. Farmers tweet crop yields, pest information and real-life solutions to common problems.

“Some of it is commiseration, like ‘the combine broke down again, dang it,’ a brothers-in-arms kind of thing,” McKenzie said, “but there’s a lot of useful information exchanged. It’s not at all frivolous.”

Louisburg alpaca farmers Mike and Sarah Conyer do some things the old-fashioned way on their Alpaca Dreams farm, like the spindle Sarah uses to spin wool into yarn for the gift shop. After McKenzie’s class, however, they said they would trade in their oversized desk calendar for online mapping to track their pasture rotations for parasite control.

But for all the times farmers innovate or elevate common technology, they also aren’t above the occasional selfie themselves. Meet the “felfie”: A selfie taken by a farm worker on the job. A Facebook group devoted to gathering felfies from across the web was set up in 2013. Currently, felfie fans number more than 53,000.

– C. Kellner