They might be more familiar with harvesters than hashtags, but a growing community of Australian farmers are embracing Twitter as a tool to communicate, particularly in light to the recent floods.

“I thought Twitter was something that movie stars and Shane Warne used and it had no purpose … but I’ve made some really good contacts,” admitted recent Twitter convert Grahame Rees.

Rees is a former sheep farmer turned teacher of low-stress stock handling and livestock marketing, with 300 clients, all farmers. He joined Twitter back in December. Already he has more than 400 followers, and says he’s made several important agriculture contacts in the United States, where Twitter is widely used by regional communities.

You’ll find Rees, along with others of his rural brethren, gathered under the #AgChatOz hashtag every Tuesday between 8-10pm to talk about issues such as the recent floods, the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and farmer suicide.

The aim of AgChatOz — adopted from the American #AgChat — is to connect rural Australian communities online and help close the city-rural divide by providing a meeting place for weekly conversations between them.

Not that it’s farmer exclusive. Many people who live in rural communities, like farmers wives, winery owners, farming foundations and rural journalists all join in the AgChatOz conversation.

“It boomed just before the election when Tony Burke on,” said one of AgChatOz’s founders, web designer Sam Livingstone. Voters were tweeting questions about agricultural issues and “to Burke’s credit, he performed. He asked and answered questions on there.”

Burke, the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, isn’t the only politician involved — MP Sussan Ley also interacted — but there’s a want from more interaction from local politicians.

“Joe Ludwig doesn’t have a Twitter account, but we’d love to have the federal Ag minister chatting with us,” said Livingstone. “We asked a staffer, but they said ‘we’re not interested'”, although Livingstone says he’s heard rumours of politicians asking for transcripts of AgChatOz conversations.

AgChatOz, created by Livingstone, Tom Whitty from CropLife Australia and agribusiness lawyer Danica Leys, was born out of frustration from local farmers at the failure of similar ABC Rural concept. The problem with the ABC Rural initiative was that the chat was held between 2-3pm, when paid ABC staff could monitor it, but no farmers or other agriculture people were available because they were working.

Last night, the first AgChatOz of 20011, the discussion topic was the recent floods and effects it has had on crops. The day before a list of questions was made available on the AgChatOz Facebook page, asking things like: have you been flooded to due to be affected by the floods? What is your immediate concern? Have people had enough rain to set themselves up well for 2011 crops? What crops have been hit hardest? Which foods can we expect to rise in price?

The questions make the chat easy to follow. “This is a photo of what used to be a cotton crop at Theodore”, tweeted Alison Fairleigh. “At the farm (Marnoo, Wimmera) at the moment, higher country, runs of quickly, had 7 inch, all dried out now, no stock losses” tweeted Dwain Duxson from The Farm Trader. “We got slammed by Hopkins River which runs through our place. Fortunately only lost fences,” said Anthony Kumnick from Greenvale Homestead. “Currently too wet to finish harvest. Remaining grain still standing will be shot and downgraded”, said Vana, a broadacre farmer in the Wimmera Mallee.

Last night mental health organisations Headspace Australia and ReachOut were involved in AgChatOz to talk about mental health in rural communities affected by flooding. It’s a topic that garners much interest in AgChatOz conversations, with a special AgChatOz being held last year solely to discuss mental health and attracting organisations like Lifelife and Headspace.

Although the AgChatOz hashtag was trending seventh in Australia yesterday, it’s still only a tiny percentage of the population engaging. “Rural people are going to be a long way behind the eight ball on things like that … there’s a lot to learn to use Twitter,” noted Rees.

The founders of AgChatOz are well aware of this, currently hoping to plan an event tagged along to one of the big agriculture field days or conferences, to help meet AgChatOz regulars and encourage and teach new people to join up. Obviously funding is currently an issue, with no money being made from AgChatOz and all the work running it performed by the founders for free.

But while Twitter is great at connecting rural and urban communities, it can’t just be superficial conversation, adds Rees. “There is some good discussion happening on Agchatoz, and a real will by people to do something, but it needs to go further. Otherwise, we’re just sitting down having a coffee and a chat in a cafe and it’s ‘see you same time next week’.”

Peter Fray

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