When Shayne Suppes looks at the out-sized equipment it takes to run a family farm these days, he sees bugs.
Giant stink bugs, in fact.
The latest and greatest of these is a shiny red "stink bug" with a wingspan of 100 feet and wheels nearly as tall as Suppes. It's actually a sprayer, and in use it looks like an upside down airplane gliding over the field. Suppes is intrigued by the comparison - he's interested in what the outside world thinks about farming - but he still sees the buggy headlight eyes.
"Let's call this one Buggles," he says affectionately and laughs, patting his new sprayer on the side.
Buggles is just one of the pieces of technology Suppes has on his family farming operation in Scott and Lane counties. And, it's just one of many high-tech machinery he is using to tell agriculture's story - one post at a time.
This winter, Suppes attended the Wheat Industry Leaders of Tomorrow conference in St. Louis, coming home with another gizmo he believes may be critical to the future of family farms - Facebook.
"Farmers are known for being secretive and quiet," he said, "and they don't like people to know about what's happening."
These days, most are generations removed from the family farm, making it more important to advocate for agriculture. But, it's a world where thousands of public discussions are taking place across social media every day, shaping public opinion on things like genetically modified food, organic produce and more.
A rising tide of negative messages are appearing in some venues online, and farmers haven't been representing themselves very well in those venues, Suppes said - himself included.
"Farmers are less than 1 percent of America," said Janice Person, social media director for Monsanto. "That makes it hard for their voice to be heard in that whole conversation."
Person who spoke at the wheat conference Suppes attended, believes more farmers need to be telling their stories, and she's happy to hear that Suppes made a Facebook page for his farm.
"Fewer and fewer of us live on farms," she said. "We may see them in our area in places like Garden City or Scott City, but we may not have any firsthand experience with them."
But everyone's on social media and online, looking for information about the subjects they care about - information that is not always accurate. Farmers need to be in the mix, Person says, to help clear up misunderstandings, be part of mainstream debates taking place online.
"Everyone really cares about food," she said, "and especially today, when you see more Americans have maybe gained more weight than we'd like, and you're looking for solutions for what can you do to eat better and help your children eat better. These are things we all care about."
Sharing things about the farm on Facebook - even if it's just a picture of a wheat farm at sunset - can help open a window on the food world the farmer has to live in.
"It prepares an opening for the relationship," Person says, "so they know who to ask when they have bigger questions about agriculture."
A public page for a farm can be administered from a personal profile page while being completely separate from it. That allows farmers to control what goes to the general public and what stays on the personal page. This type of page also lets you appoint others as administrators. That way the upkeep isn't all on one person.
Managers don't have to post five times a day, Person said. A post or two a week can be plenty to keep a farm in the loop. And the page can be placed on a business card, giving an easy Web presence to connect people to your farm later.
"People want to understand, but because they don't have a background in agriculture, they are really vulnerable," she said. "If you are already an active member in the community, they trust your voice. They may not be hearing that voice because you're not sharing it with them, but social media gives you a way to do that."
Suppes is the fourth generation of his family farm, and he's excited to tell the farm's story of tradition and progress on Facebook. Staying on top of all the new things - new technology, new science, changing markets - is a full-time job in and of itself, so he knows finding time to keep up with a Facebook page will be a challenge. But he believes it's important for more family farmers' voices to be heard in the Main Street discussions taking place online. He hopes others will join him in such efforts.
Part of the story Suppes and others are sharing is the fact that farmers have had to grow their operations to stay in the game. For instance, the Suppes farm is now a 10,000-acre operation - but the number of hands has not really increased.
They've had to step up the pace, get more from each acre. Each year, wind and temperature define a hard-edged and sometimes exceedingly short window of opportunity to work 1,000 or more acres of territory in a single day. With the GPS unit and auto-steer technology, they can cover territory quickly and more accurately, Suppes said.
Suppes doesn't want the farm to get any larger if he can help it, however, so he and his family are constantly looking for ideas to squeeze more from each acre.
And, there is "Buggles" - which has a global positioning system unit hooked up inside her glass-enclosed cockpit, and that little gizmo is just one of many examples of high-tech machinery today's family farmer must embrace to stay competitive in the business.
"Feeding the world would be my slogan if I had one, he said. "That's what we're really out to do. Every farmer feeds 155 people plus you. We have to maintain a sustainable food source to feed the world. In the next few years, we're going to add 2 billion more people to the world. That's 9 billion people. Now that's a scary thought. How are we going to feed all those people? That's a question we all have to answer."
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