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100-year-old dairy farm adapts to digital age with Instagram

December 24, 2018

HARTLAND, Vt. (AP) — You might think you have the Instagram game figured out. But the Richardson Family Farm offers some friendly competition.

The farm, based in Hartland, Vermont, boasts nearly 14,000 followers on the social media platform. The feed is dominated by picturesque photographs of cows grazing on lush grass.

Amy Richardson runs the account and updates it every few days, mainly focusing on scenic shots of life on the farm. But Richardson also takes risks like participating in the #nakedfarmer where she ditched clothes in support awareness for mental health issues. She has adapted different techniques since she started the account in 2013, figuring out her own voice in the process.

The farm does business in three key areas: Maple syrup, milk and split-rail fencing. Its longstanding history began in 1907.

Richardson’s home is down the road from the cows. Her husband, Scott, grew up nearby in a house surrounded by trees.

Richardson studied rural resource management at Sterling College and forest management at the University of Vermont, where she met Scott. Though she described herself as relatively outdoorsy, she had little experience working a farm — other than some exposure at Sterling.

Until she got married and joined the farm’s operations in the early 1990s.

The Cabot Creamery Co-operative to which the family farm belongs hosted a Farmers’ Gratitude Tour in 2013. This led Richardson to New York City, offering cheese samples to passers-by alongside her colleagues. Cabot organized the tour as a “way of saying thank you to folks in the New York metro region for buying Cabot cheese and other fine dairy products.”

The subject of social media came up, prompting Richardson to create an Instagram account. Richardson said the co-op’s board of directors and marketing department needed a little help sharing what farmers do. Her account could help address consumers’ concerns about the dairy industry regarding management practices and subjects like animal/land care.

“I had this idea in my mind of how I just wanted to share peeks into what we’re doing here,” she said.

The farm also has a website run by Richardson’s brother-in-law — which she links to in the Instagram account’s biography — and a Twitter account run by Richardson’s husband.

“It took me a little while ... to kind of figure out how it all worked,” Richardson said, remembering her children saying five posts a day might not be the best strategy.

For Richardson, posting too frequently interfered with her ability to make quality content. She considered time an asset as she spaced out the duration between her photographs.

She described her account as less focused on farm education than others in the industry. She admires Cabot Creamery’s social media presence and runs questions by its marketing department. Richardson includes the hashtag #Cabotfarmers on Instagram, and Cabot often reposts her content.

Her numbers eventually grew, but one thing still alluded her: Building community with people she never actually met in person. For Richardson, when you have friends, “you see each other once in a while” — making it challenging for her to work with Instagram’s virtual relationship-building mechanisms.

“I really decided I needed more,” she said.

That led her on a trip to the United Kingdom, visiting farmers she met through Instagram and offering help where she could.

Narrowing the focus

“I think the cows can sell it all — or tell the whole story,” Richardson said.

She initially tried to promote all three of the farm’s businesses. Then she realized she could only post so many interesting photographs of maple syrup bottles.

Richardson made other small changes over time, like using the “Stories” feature on Instagram to show more about life on the farm — sometimes including music to personalize them.

Richardson took more steps to make the account her own, like changing the name to “richardsonfamfarmer” (rather than “richardsonfamfarm”).

She grew comfortable following accounts unrelated to farming and chose to block those that left negative comments, saying she proactively “put up that barrier”. She turned off comments on her video of a cow giving birth — which had over 27,000 views when she checked — due to arguments between Instagram users. In her recollection, she thinks this infighting revolved around disagreements about helping a cow giving birth, as well as separating the calf after.

Richardson also learned that showing the less savory parts of farm life is OK.

“It’s taken me time to gain the confidence to do that kind of thing,” she said.

While she feels lucky to be a farmer, she acknowledged there are trade-offs and that it is not always a necessarily “happy-go-lucky-life.”

Which brought her to #nakedfarmer.

The Australian-born movement uses attention-grabbing tactics of semi/full-nudity to draw conversations that “support people in the agricultural industry who suffer from mental health issues.”

“I didn’t go for family approval... I just decided to do it,” Richardson said of her participation.

She did, however, ask a few friends before posting a nude photograph of herself. The picture, posted on Nov. 1, 2018, depicts blue skies, green grass and a naked Richardson sitting on a cow, dangling maple syrup bottles over each shoulder.

Her message indicated a love for her lifestyle, her initial hesitation to post the photograph, a Tom Petty lyric and an admiration for the campaign. She felt using her network to bring up the issue was important. There was concern that posting the photograph with the farm’s maple syrup jugs could be controversial for business.

But ultimately she knew this was social media: Something new would eventually come along and draw attention elsewhere.

“I’m not an expert at all but I’ve found kind of a niche that’s working,” Richardson said.

She found that a photograph really was worth a thousand words and sometimes you want to “let it speak for itself for a little while.”

Richardson joined a Cabot marketing team to a conference a few years ago. A presentation given on Instagram helped her navigate the platform. Some of these tips included:

— Ensuring your photographs are of decent quality. Richardson uses an iPhone for hers.

— Understanding your message and being consistent with it.

— Being uniform in the way you operate: Richardson noted five posts per day was too much for her account and eventually settled into a fairly regular posting schedule that suits her. But she would never drastically break that cycle without warning (for example, going on an unannounced month-long hiatus).

Her own insights included two major points:

— Your followers expect certain things from you. Richardson adapted, for example, by focusing mainly on the cows rather than other aspects of the business.

— You need to commit time if you are trying to grow on the platform. But for Richardson, Instagram was not crucial to the farm’s livelihood — meaning having fun with it came first.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2AhJAfg

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Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com

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