Tim May is a fourth-generation dairy farmer near Guelph, Ont., with 27,000 followers on Facebook. That’s right — 27,000.
May started his Farmer Tim Facebook page a little over three years ago when he decided it was time for average farmers to battle the misinformation about dairy farming and agriculture that he saw being shared on social media.
And if you’re wondering — no, he doesn’t receive any payment for the hours he puts in.
Q: Why do you share your message on Facebook? Do you use any other social media platforms?
Farmer Tim: I also have about 4,000 followers on each of Twitter and Instagram, but I funnel these back to my Facebook page, which is my main channel. I can’t be everywhere at once and I find Facebook works the best for the kind of posts I like to make. It’s like a journal. I snap a few pictures during the day and then say something about them to show my life on the farm.
With Facebook there is no limit to the number of words or pictures, and I can have more control over the comments. It’s easier to have a conversation. Instagram is more about pictures. Twitter isn’t my forté. I also have a Word Press blog.
Q: What is your basic approach to posting on Facebook?
Farmer Tim: My target audience is non-farmers although there are quite a few farmers and retired farmers following me as well. I try to keep it simple and use words that non-farmers will understand. If I’m posting a picture of a cow calving, I try to think about how someone who isn’t a farmer would perceive this. I don’t talk down to them or call them “citiots.” It’s not people’s fault they didn’t grow up on a farm. I like to use humour… people don’t like it when you get preachy.
I try to politely say this is what happens. I don’t mind if activists have questions or disagree with me politely. And not every vegan is an animal activist. I have friends who are vegan. It’s a personal choice. I don’t tell people to drink milk; food choices are your own. My focus is on battling misinformation.
I’m the “nerd with a herd.” I like to educate people. I show them the struggles of being a farmer and how hard it is for me to take holidays. I explain that farmers are consumers too.
I show my personal side as well. I show them my hobbies. I like to collect antiques and I’m interested in astronomy. I have an observatory here at the farm.
And I try to be empathetic and compassionate. That goes a long way.
Q. What are your followers most concerned about?
Farmer Tim: GMOs, antibiotics and animal welfare. I handle this by posting factual peer-reviewed information, not by Monsanto. Or I share links to the Ontario agriculture ministry or Farm & Food Care websites. I have a science background (BSc in animal science) and my wife is a veterinarian so that helps. On a rare occasion I’ve had to ban someone from my page who was obviously not there for the conversation or who was threatening to me or one of my followers, but most of the time the conversation is great.
When it comes to complaints about farmers who have abused their animals I explain that that doesn’t mean all farmers abuse their animals, just like if one pet owner abuses their pets that doesn’t mean they all do.
Q. What are the challenges?
Farmer Tim: I’m basically a shy person. I found it nerve-racking at first.
I like to respond to all of the private messages I get and it’s hard. I get 20 to 30 per day, consumers asking questions, farmers thanking me, people from overseas looking for work.
I have to avoid knee-jerk reactions to incorrect comments. Some of the videos by activists that are circulating can be very convincing. These comments stem from misinformation but I still need to respond politely. I try to be kind to everyone and thank them for commenting. I try to walk in their shoes.
Farmer-trolls who pick on non-farmers are a problem too. A lot of the messages are sent to me privately because people are afraid of being picked on by farmers. Farmers need to do a better job.
I have to avoid confirmation bias (the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories). We are all guilty of this sometimes.
Q. This is quite a bit of work. What do you like best about it?
Farmer Tim: For years I have had school tours come to the farm. That’s how I got called Farmer Tim. The teacher would say, this is Farmer Tim. I always enjoyed it. I think if I didn’t become a farmer I would have liked to be a teacher. I now have the best of both worlds, farming, and teaching via social media. I want to do my part to speak up for agriculture.
I’m by myself all day so it’s a creative outlet for me. And the positive private messages keep you going. I’ve learned a lot. Social media works both ways. It helps me to better understand where people are coming from.
- Don’t talk down. Not everyone has had the luxury of growing up on a farm.
- Be empathetic and compassionate. This will go a long way.
- If you don’t know, don’t make it up.
- Be positive and polite. You are representing your fellow farmer.
- I am sharing my perspective, what happens on my farm only. It may not represent all dairy farms.
- When debunking a myth, don’t mention or share the original post. That gives it more profile on Facebook and will put it into more people’s news feeds.