It’s not hard to keep track of what’s happening on Steppler Farms, west of Miami.
A quick scroll through their blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter feeds shows pictures taken in the field, videos of feeding cattle, links to articles and posts on everything from beehive management to family birthdays.
On screen, Ian Steppler appears in what is obviously a phone video as he takes viewers through making a pollinator seed mix and replaces machine bearings.
On another social media account, this one managed by his brother and business partner, Andre, Andre Steppler sits in a parked tractor cab, surrounded by his children, as he talks about his morning chores and conception rates in the purebred Charolais herd that is his claim to fame.
“The easiest thing to do is just talk about what you know and everything just follows through and if you’ve got something to share and you’ve got a perspective that you want to convey to somebody else, then that just comes naturally,” Ian Steppler said.
The Stepplers are among the growing number of farmers to take their marketing online, one keystroke, YouTube upload and live stream at a time.
The farm’s website includes a blog, updated at least four times weekly by Ian, while the portion devoted to Steppler Charolais links to Andre Steppler’s active Twitter feed, while another tab connects to the farm’s official Facebook page.
Outside of those official accounts, both brothers run their own Facebook pages, while Ian Steppler is active on YouTube, where he posts everything about beekeeping, from winter storage to his own hive disease test results. Those feeds helped earn him speaking invites at beekeeping conferences in Winnipeg and Kelowna, B.C., appointments with MPs and the Manitoba government.
The Steppler bull sale, one of the farm’s largest events of the year, has seen a noted uptick since they shifted their online strategy to breeding stock. The family ramps up excitement weeks beforehand over social media, drawing audience to their website where stats and video of the animals up for sale are posted.
The farm blog usually sees about 2,000 hits a week, not counting social media, Ian said, numbers that could jump by three times in the weeks right before the sale.
The sale itself is live streamed across the globe.
“We’re getting a huge amount of traffic watching these bull sales and heifer sales,” Steppler said. “It’s translating into sales. We sell a lot of bulls out of our area and heifers too. We sell from Alberta right to — we have some animals in Nova Scotia.”
Other, global customers, are interested in their genetics, making the internet key.
Steppler’s story is not unique.
In Alberta, many rural residents know Dr. Cody Creelman of Veterinary Agri-Health Services by sight, even if they’ve never met him.
Creelman began “vlogging,” or video blogging, in 2015 after joining an old veterinary practice near Airdrie, Alta., and quickly deciding that the online presence needed a facelift.
“A lot of it just came down to me wanting to market the services that my veterinary practice provides and the way to do that was marketing in the age that we actually live in and that’s a lot of the digital media that we actually consume,” he said. “I needed to put myself out there on those platforms for us to be able to market that we are a veterinary practice and the services that we provide and that we provide high-quality medicine and that we’re OK people to talk with.”
The young vet eventually turned to social media and began documenting day-to-day activities on Instagram, a social media site using images and short videos.
Instagram soon morphed into Vine, a now defunct platform using seven-second video clips that Creelman says was “pivotal” to his transformation to a video blogger. Soon, Creelman was producing YouTube videos and found his niche.
The longer format allowed Creelman to go in depth, literally taking the viewer in the passenger seat of his pickup as he hit the road. His casual, friendly, style was the same attitude he found gained traction on other platforms.
“People enjoyed going out on the road with me for the day, so I tried to create that,” he said. “And some of that is literally the pace I am going to get to the next call. I only have the opportunity to turn on the camera when I’m jumping into the truck to say, ‘This is what we’re doing today,’ as we’re pulling out of the parking lot.”
Today, the Alberta vet has over 30,000 subscribers on YouTube, 25,700 on Instagram and 5,800 on Twitter. He is the co-founder of Mosiac Veterinary Partners, a veterinary investment group to support rural veterinarians, and his business has grown substantially since he first hit “post.”
The next wave
The latest generation of agriculture program graduates will already have many of those skills in their arsenal.
Agribusiness students at Assiniboine Community College, have two courses on marketing and public relations, including online. One of those tells students to create a marketing plan for an agricultural product or service, which could be a farm, instructor James Ellis said, although most ACC agribusiness graduates are bound for the industry, not the homestead.
“There is research on which demographic they’re going after and then trying to identify what is the best marketing tool or combination of marketing tools to go forward with that. And then they start to make it specific and customized based on that information,” he said. “Really, what I find so interesting is that there isn’t just one way. There’s many different ways to approach it.”
Vlogging has been both a boon and drain to Creelman, since he has essentially added “videographer” onto his resume alongside “veterinarian.”
Once the refuge of amateur videos, successful YouTube personalities now spend hours on things like camera angles, background sound, scene cuts, angle shifts and video effects to make content enticing and drive traffic.
Creelman estimates that each video takes four hours of editing, hours he puts in on top of his regular work day.
It’s a strain that Steppler has also felt.
“If you’re going to catch that audience you’ve got to retain that, and to do that you’ve got to keep putting content out there,” he said. “If you’re just going to put content out there and it’s garbage, nobody wants that. You’ve got to put stuff out there of value, so it takes a lot of thought.”
Posting content on the farm’s blog or cattle comes with yet another time-consuming layer, he added.
While Ian Steppler regularly posts on the ins and outs of beekeeping, his beekeeping accounts are not technically linked to the farm and work on the farm’s blog may take a different tone.
“With my bees, it doesn’t matter. I have a lot of opinions and I talk about bees and I’m not selling anything and I try to keep everything professional and non-political, but with Andre, the way I see the cows and represent them online is different than the way he sees them and would like to see them represented online, because a bad picture will totally take away from what he’s trying to do,” he said. “We’re spending a lot of time on it and we really have to make sure that we control our content.”
Creelman’s role as a veterinarian throws another wrench in the works, since he is not only videoing his own work, but another producer’s animals.
“They trust me as a person, as a veterinarian and it was a slow, gradual progression of me telling that story through different means, of taking that picture, showing that video over Snapchat and it was that progression that then allowed them to trust me to be able to show that story,” he said, adding that his clients now often expect him to leave his truck, camera in hand.
Many times, they’re disappointed if he doesn’t, he said.
Beware of trolls
As with anything on the internet, posts on social media or YouTube have opened farmers up to criticism and “trolls,” users who purposefully post provocative comments for the sake of stirring up a response.
The comments section is infamous for critical, rude or inappropriate replies.
For those tied to agriculture, the danger is even more acute. Public trust has become a topic of discussion in almost all sectors of the industry, and the same recognition that puts a business on the map also opens the gates for negative comments.
For a conventional farmer, like the Stepplers, opening the farm for public view might draw the digital wrath of hardline organic proponents. For Creelman, filming the realities of veterinary work can and has earned negativity from animal welfare activists.
But while others might shy away from that negativity, the veterinarian says those are actually his favourite comments to address.
“The problem with things like some of the agriculture advocates on places like Twitter is a lot of times it’s preaching to the choir,” he said. “We’re beating our own drum in an industry and the only ears and eyes that are seeing that are people who are doing the same sort of thing.
“If we were trying to say that what we’re doing is to advocate for agriculture, that’s the only thing that we need to do; first and foremost we need to be talking to the potential consumers and they’re not going to be in some of those same places,” he added.
His counter-argument may not convince a true critic, he said, but his response will remain in writing for others who are less convinced. At the same time, he said, critical questions often let him address concerns around pain control, transforming the criticism into a teachable moment.
Steppler, meanwhile, says YouTube experience so far has been mostly positive. Personal communication has been more problematic. As a businessman with a published contact number, he has had to block harassing calls from viewers upset about something he has posted.
“I haven’t had too much trouble on YouTube per se, not yet,” he said. “I have a lot of trouble on Facebook and I just delete those guys, but I’ve been getting emails because now I’m putting myself out there.”
At the same time, he said, he also gets dozens of positive messages every day.