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February 24, 2010   Email to Friend 

WILL POWER: Gilmer Sees Internet As Tool To Sing Praises For Farming
By Darryal Ray

"I can't just talk about what we're doing on the farm," Gilmer says. "I've got to also talk about WHY we're doing what we do."
Will Gilmer admits days on the family's Lamar County dairy farm can grow long, especially when the tractor's radio doesn't work and he's all alone with "nothing but time and engine hum."

"When you get through solving the world's problems in your mind, you start thinking of other things," says the 30-year-old, third-generation dairyman.

For Gilmer, those "other things" are usually ways he can tell farming's story -- whether it's through the farm's Web site, its Edopt-a-Cow program, his Dairyman's Blog, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

His is a multi-faceted approach to farm evangelism, the kind of do-it-all strategy he plans to continue in his new role as chairman of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmers & Ranchers Committee.

"What I want our committee to do is to really get out there the first half of this year and talk about the things we do on our farm," says Gilmer, who chaired the Alabama Farmers Federation's Young Farmers state committee in 2008 and is now the second Alfa member in three years to serve in this capacity.

"We've got to put ourselves out there, whether it's through social media, the Internet, small-town newspapers, TV stations, school groups, farm tours or talking to civic groups," he added. "We need to hit every avenue we can and talk about life on the farm and what we're doing. We've got to develop some relationships and trust. Once we have that relationship, it makes it a lot easier so that when hot button issues come up, we can speak with more authority and have more of an impact."

It's not really a new mission, he says, noting that Townsend Kyser, the Greene County catfish farmer who chaired the national committee in 2008, had issued a similar challenge to the group.

It's a calling that Gilmer himself answered several years ago when he first launched GilmerDairyFarm.com in hopes of educating the public on not only the "how" but the "why" of dairy farming and its practices. One way he did that was through his innovative "Edopt-A-Cow" program, where Web visitors can electronically "adopt" a member of the farm's dairy herd and follow its life on the farm. About 25 cows have been "e-dopted" in the four years since, most by elementary-age schoolchildren.

In May 2008, he attended a "Conversations on Animal Care" workshop in which young farmers learned about pressures on agriculture from such activist groups as Humane Society of the United States as well as threats from governmental regulation.

"That really opened my eyes," Gilmer said. "I realized then that I can't just talk about what we're doing on the farm -- I've got to also talk about WHY we're doing what we do."

Soon after, a Webinar hosted by the Dairy Check-Off discussed the value of using different types of social media in getting out its message. "I'd heard of Twitter but had no idea of what it was other than it involved a lot of text messaging," said Gilmer. "And I'd heard of Facebook, but I thought it was something for teenagers and college kids. So I wasn't all that interested. But they made a point that it was easy to use, and people of all ages were using these things, and so they encouraged everybody to give it a try."

Not surprisingly, the farm Web site's random "news" updates eventually gave way to The Dairyman's Blog, in which Gilmer talked about everything from a poor silage harvest to why dairy farmers don't get holidays off. "Even if (non-farmers) realize milk comes from a farm and doesn't come from a grocery store, they don't have any idea of how it happens," he says. "So I started that, and it pretty much always focuses on the nuts and bolts on what activities we were doing here on the farm."

The Dairyman's Blog has 37 followers, but the spontaneity of texting has enabled him to post almost 3,500 messages on Twitter where he has more than 1,000 "followers." Then, there's the farm's "fan page" on Facebook, where its fans (all 580 of them) can write on the page's "wall," read quick updates or view photos of the farm and family.

Last Aug. 31, Gilmer joined the YouTube revolution, turning his cell phone's video camera onto his cows and himself. The resulting video journals offer snippets of life on the farm he and his father David operate, whether explaining rotational grazing or introducing cow No. 638, Lilly Lou, as part of the Edopt-a-Cow program.

The video updates have now become known as Gilmer Dairy Farm's "MooTube Minute," light-hearted, educational segments that usually wrap up with his signature sign-off: "Remember, you can always learn more about our family's farm at gilmerdairyfarm.com. Thank you very much and have a dairy good day."

But Gilmer's songs attract the most attention -- songs like Rye, Rye, Rye, Ain't Getting Paid Enough for My Milk Blues or A Buck or Two. At last count, he'd posted 43 videos -- almost 27,000 total upload views.

"Everyone would have their own way of how they define success," Gilmer says. "But a lot more people have seen the videos than I ever thought would, a lot more people have subscribed to our Twitter and Facebook pages than I ever thought they would, and our Web site has logged a lot more traffic than I ever thought.

"It's not so much the overall number," he said, "but knowing you are reaching people and being effective doing it. Whether you're reaching two or three people or 200,000 or 300,000, anytime you can help shape somebody's perception and give them a better understanding of modern agriculture -- even if it's just one person that you can get on your side -- that alone is enough to make it worthwhile."

It's no wonder then that Gilmer didn't give up when an older farmer told him that he preferred to "stay away from computers."

"I asked him, 'You have GPS on your tractor, don't you?' He says, 'Yeah.' So, I said, 'Well, you can handle Facebook,'" said Gilmer. "The guys out there using precision agriculture can't play that can't-use-computers card with me. Precision ag is a lot more difficult and a lot more sophisticated than logging onto Facebook or Twitter."

Late last September, Gilmer was bouncing across a pasture as he pulled a manure tank behind his tractor. Amid the engine's hum, he began thinking of the next lesson he could teach the non-farming public about dairying. Then, it hit him -- Water & Poo, a song about nutrient management.

Sung to the tune of country singer Stonewall Jackson's 1958 hit, Waterloo, the YouTube performance quickly became his most popular video to date with almost 10,000 views.

Nevertheless, it was a performance Gilmer says is more likely to end up on the "reject reel" of American Idol than open any doors to a musical career.

"I don't think what I've done in social media had anything to do with how the election (for YF&R chairman) turned out," he says. "If it did, I guess it was just that they saw from my YouTube videos that I was willing to sacrifice my pride to get our message across."

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