From his home in rural Alabama, Will Gilmer comes up with some udderly unique social media posts. They’re quick, witty, often informative, and in general a real teat—make that treat—for his more than 11,000 Twitter followers.
A third-generation dairyman, Gilmer uses social media and a liberal dose of pun-infused humor to offer a glimpse into the daily operations of a modern, family-owned farm.
Raised on the 600-acre Gilmer Dairy Farm in Vernon, Alabama, he learned early on what it takes to get food from the barn to consumers’ tables. After leaving home for Mississippi State University, however, Gilmer learned most others don’t share this knowledge.
“I realized that even at a university with an agriculture background, a lot of people weren’t coming from small towns or farms,” the 2001 agricultural engineering technology and business graduate recalled. “They didn’t have any experience or knowledge about where their food came from, other than you got it at a grocery store.”
After returning to the family business following graduation, Gilmer decided to help enlighten consumers by sharing how life is dairy-good on the farm.
“It’s not practical where we are to give farm tours,” Gilmer explained, noting that even GPS struggles to get visitors to the door on the first try. “But it’s important for people to understand how we work and what’s affecting the food supply.”
Gilmer first started a website and blog that reported on daily farm operations. He then began a program to let schools “E-dopt” members of their herd. Each participating class was assigned a specific cow whose life they would follow throughout the year.
“I’d send them a picture of the cow with a certificate. They’d get monthly milk production updates and special announcements for any other big event, like if she had a calf,” Gilmer explained. “Then social media came along and it became the next progression.”
Today, Gilmer primarily uses Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to share his farming experience. And as his father David explained, the now 65-year-old farm never fails to keep life interesting.
“Every day is almost like Christmas morning because you never know what you’re going to uncover,” explained the elder Gilmer, a 1977 agricultural engineering technology and business graduate of Mississippi State.
Their days start before sunrise, with a 3 a.m. wake-up call. By 4 a.m., the father and son pair have ushered the first 20 of more than 200 Holstein cows into the parlor for the day’s first milking. As they wrap things up three hours later, the dairy’s two full-time farmhands report to work, taking over cleanup duties and giving the Gilmers a chance to see to things at home.
For Will, that often means a chance to catch up on messages. Despite the early hour, he’ll have been actively Tweeting all morning, so as people at home pour cream into their first cup of coffee, they can catch up on the dairy’s activities through his real-time posts. Depending on the morning, it could be a beautiful sunrise over the fields, an inevitable but decidedly less beautiful manure-splatter selfie, a dairy-themed hashtag, or updates on the herd.
“I want people to say ‘We might not be on your farm, but we know what’s going on on your farm,’” Gilmer explained.
Things become less predictable mid-morning as the Gilmers and the two farmhands tackle the various tasks of farm operation—growing the food stock, feeding and monitoring the health of the animals, and repairing and maintaining buildings and equipment.
“A lot of our equipment and buildings have been here since my grandfather started the dairy, so it’s in various states of disrepair. But I guess we’ll keep using it until a strong enough wind comes to knock it down,” Gilmer said jokingly.
Though he makes light of the situation, there’s some truth to Gilmer’s jest about milking all of the life out of the dairy’s facilities and equipment. For family-owned farms, it’s important to keep costs down, and with the number of dairies in the area shrinking every year, it’s becoming more difficult to find replacements or even repairmen for their specialized machines.
“Right now, there’s one dairy supply company that operates in our area. If it goes out of business, then getting service will be an issue,” Gilmer explained. “If we have a critical piece of equipment go down and we can’t fix it ourselves or have to wait for a part, that puts us behind pretty badly.”
The dairy averages 13,000 pounds of milk a day between the morning and afternoon milking sessions, which works out to about 7 gallons per cow. Still, even with an established herd and a fairly self-sustaining farm, Gilmer explained that a lot of their success is determined by things beyond their control.
“The public dictates so much of what we can do through the regulations that are passed and even matters of trade,” Gilmer explained. “That’s a big reason why it’s important to share what we do.”
Gilmer’s social-media posts largely focus on the fun and funny side of life on the farm, while still illustrating the hard work and time that go into dairy farming. He said that approach helps people connect to the science behind the industry.
“The general public that doesn’t deal with this on a daily basis doesn’t necessarily want to hear about the science,” Gilmer said. “Even though the science works and proves that what we’re doing is what’s best for us, our animals and the consumers, people aren’t going to buy our product if they don’t like how we’re making it. That’s why we have to make that emotional connection, too.”
Gilmer’s approach seems to be working. An informal, social-media poll revealed engaged followers as far away as Sweden and scattered throughout the United States. His popular online presence regularly results in media attention and invitations to share his philosophy with civic groups and schools, and to teach his strategies to others in the agriculture community. In early March, he participated in a technology in agriculture panel at the South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, Texas.
Though these outreach efforts are time consuming and often pull him away from his farm duties, he said it’s worth it to spread the word that farmers are more than meets the eye. So, whether it’s from the tractor, the barn, his living room, or a world-famous technology conference, Gilmer will keep posting until the cows come home.
“The more people who know what we do and how we do it, perhaps the more friendly they will be to the way that we do it when they have a chance to make their voices heard,” Gilmer said.