Tweeting as a pest management tool
By Carolyn King
Immediate, open, interactive – those key traits make Twitter a powerful tool for sharing information, ideas and advice on weeds, diseases and insect pests. Twitter is allowing Prairie crop growers and specialists to tap into the diverse expertise and experiences in crop pest management available out there in the “Twitterverse.”
“Twitter is made for being mobile, for smartphones and tablets, and for farmers with time on their hands when autosteer is running,” says Rick Taillieu (@albertacanola), grower relations and extension co-ordinator with the Alberta Canola Producers Commission (ACPC).
“Some farmers and agronomists are very actively involved in Twitter and put a lot of information up. Others use it like a newspaper – they don’t make any comments, but they roll through it every day and look at things that interest them.”
One common way growers and agronomists use Twitter is to get immediate answers to their pest questions. Although the 140-character limit means tweets have to be concise, tweeting a related picture can be worth a thousand characters.
Scott Meers (@ABbugcounter), insect management specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, is very active in insect identification and management issues on Twitter. “In our program, we have a weekly interactive talk on Twitter during the summer, and we send out tweets about various insect management issues. We also get lots of agronomists and farmers sending pictures of insects to us and asking what they are. And we get questions about specific insects, such as how to look for them and what to do about them.”
He notes, “I like Twitter because it’s like an email with that individual person, but everybody can see it. So you have a fairly large audience for each discussion, and if the discussion is interesting, people will retweet it and join the conversation.”
Taillieu says, “Growers and agronomists are posing questions on Twitter like: ‘What’s this bug?’ or ‘What’s this symptom I’m seeing on this canola plant?’ They may get an answer from anyone who is following them on Twitter. If they mention Alberta Canola or Canola Watch or one of the agronomists, then they are much more likely to get a response from us. And with Twitter, we are able to not only answer the person who actually asked the question, but we put the answer out there for everyone to see. That’s great because a hundred other people might have that same question.”
Dr. Tom Wolf (@nozzle_guy) of AgriMetrix Research & Training answers many questions about spraying from growers on Twitter. Some simply ask a question, and others send pictures related to their concern. “For example, water-sensitive paper, which is yellow paper that turns blue when water droplets hit it, can be used to assess spray coverage or droplet size. So some farmers throw some paper down, make a pass with their sprayer, take a picture of the paper, and tweet it to me, and ask: ‘Is this good enough? What should I do?’ A quick qualitative assessment of the picture will tell me if your droplet sizes are too large or too small, or your water volume is too high or too low, and I make that recommendation based on my expertise.”
At the same time, Wolf learns a lot from listening to farmers on Twitter. “It’s fantastic to follow farmers on Twitter because they are so interested in their topic. You gain a tremendous insight into what they are going through, what kinds of logic they use in making key decisions, whose advice they seek, and also what advice comes their way, because you’re listening in on other people’s advice to them, as well,” he says.
“Twitter helps me to get a much better sense of what farmers are doing right now, how they are doing it, and what their concerns are – for example, if there are issues with windiness, or temperature, or wetness, or frost on the farm, that affect spraying.”
That information helps Wolf to be more relevant to his clients. “The worst thing that can happen to a scientist like myself is to be holed up in the office, needing to do important tasks, but losing touch with farmers.”
Twitter is very handy for providing time-sensitive information. “For us at ACPC, as well as the Canola Council of Canada, Twitter is an excellent way to get just-in-time information out very quickly,” Taillieu explains. “As fast as we can compose a 140-character tweet or throw on a picture, we can get the information out to the 3,600 people who are following us. It’s a short message that they can read quickly, and it usually directs them to our website or some other place if they want more information.”
Meers adds, “I don’t think anything else has the instantaneous fan-out effect that Twitter has. For instance, there was an unexpected cutworm outbreak around Lethbridge, and I tweeted that out. It got retweeted 15 times in 5 minutes.”
Eric Johnson (@ericscottweeds), weed biologist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada at Scott, Sask., says Twitter helps him interact with the people he serves and works with. He uses Twitter for things like updating agronomists and growers about his research, answering questions and discussing issues related to herbicide use, and sharing timely information.
“For instance, last spring some growers asked me if there were any [in-crop herbicides] to deal with Group 1 herbicide-resistant wild oat in their flax crop. And there really isn’t; you have to use a pre-emergence herbicide. So this October I tweeted that if you’re considering growing flax in 2015, you should start planning your herbicide options now. It was a very simple posting and created quite a thread,” says Johnson.
He adds, “Twitter is not only a way for me to get information out, but it is also a learning process for me. [People participating in a Twitter conversation] may have further questions, but they may have further insights into the topic.” For instance, as part of that Twitter conversation on weed issues in flax, one grower shared some work he was doing with tall stubble and the benefits for weed management in flax, an idea that Johnson thinks would be useful to integrate into a research study.
Similarly, Wolf gets ideas for research from Twitter. “Let me give you a good example. In the last few years, there has been more and more interest in the application of fungicides. Certainly that has been promoted by the crop protection industry, but our weather has also been conducive to disease development. So people have been asking me questions like: ‘How should I be spraying this fungicide product on this crop?’
“When I get that type of question and if I am not aware of any research on it, then that gives me an idea of what needs to be done. So we wrote a grant application to study fungicide spray application into mature canopies. We got the grant and we’re doing experiments this fall. So it has directly led to what I think is quite relevant work.”
Meers draws on Twitter to identify emerging insect issues. Even though he’s the only AARD entomologist who is in the field, he and his technicians are able to keep on top of insect issues because he has Twitter followers all over the province. “When a farmer or an agronomist sends a picture of a bug to ask what it is, most of the time it’s just a bug that doesn’t matter, but that is how we will find the next new thing. It won’t be a government guy; it will be somebody out checking their fields,” he says.
“For instance, Saskatchewan has an issue with swede midge in canola, and we’ve had several questions about swede midge in Alberta. We were able to get one of my technicians or myself or an agrologist who’s in the area to swing by the field and have a look. So people are tweeting with their concerns and we’re able to check out potential hot spots.”
Johnson gives an example of using Twitter to gather information on weed trends. “This past spring, we had a high emergence of cleavers and wild buckwheat in our fields [at AAFC’s Scott Research Farm]. So I took pictures of them and tweeted, ‘Noticing fairly high levels of emergence of cleavers and wild buckwheat, is anybody else seeing the same?’ I got quite a few responses.”
And Twitter can help in the creation of new knowledge. One farmer tweeted Meers about bertha armyworm in corn. Meers says, “I thought, ‘that doesn’t sound right.’ But I happened to be in the area, so I went and looked at it. We were able to figure out that the bertha armyworm had started in the weeds in the field and then moved up and started eating the kernels off the cobs. So we figured out this new association between bertha armyworm and corn. Without Twitter, that never would have happened.”
Twitter is also a valuable tool to help extension agents to identify hot topics. “If a lot of people are asking questions on Twitter about a certain insect, that tells us it’s time to do a news release on this bug, or feature it in Canola Watch, or put links to that information on our home page,” says Taillieu.
Meers notes, “We schedule our weekly Twitter chat ahead of my weekly radio talk on Call of the Land. If there are emerging issues that I’m not aware of, they’ll often get picked up in the Twitter chat, and then I use them as topics for the radio talk. I think the real power is when we link these different communication tools together. So we link Twitter conversations to a radio talk and to our weekly email-out of issues and links. And then everything links back to our website; it’s a very dynamic website during the summer.”
He adds, “It sounds all very formal and calculated, but Twitter is organic – you never know what you’re going to get through Twitter. And like anything organic, you have to care for it and feed it. If you don’t answer people and stay engaged, then it withers and dies. But that’s like any relationship, and Twitter is a relationship with your followers.”
The flip side of that is it can be hard to get away from Twitter. Meers says, “You are forever connected to Twitter as long as you have a device that is connected to either Wi-Fi or a cell system.”
And if you let it, Twitter can take up a lot of your time. Johnson notes, “You could spend all day reading tweets, so I keep the number of people I follow to a minimum. If you’re using Twitter for professional information, you’ll find out pretty quickly who is worth following.”
Overall, Twitter can be a valuable tool for advancing pest management on the farm.
“You wouldn’t believe how much useful information is shared through Twitter, with extension specialists and scientists interacting with farmers directly,” says Wolf. He adds, “I would recommend to any producer or agricultural researcher or extension specialist to go on Twitter.”
Meers agrees. “I’ve been in extension for over 30 years, and Twitter is one of the most powerful tools I’ve ever seen for messaging and being connected to an audience.”
Taillieu notes, “At ACPC, we’ve been using Twitter for five years, and our number of users has grown exponentially. We’re seeing lots of good discussions on all aspects of the farm, especially on pest management. It has really become a fabulous way to share information.”