By Jerry Jackson


Citrus manager Pete Spyke has earned a reputation for innovation through the decades in Florida, but now he’s learning some new tricks about “tweeting” and “blogging” and other newfangled ways of communicating.

The new tools of social media are making inroads into all kinds of businesses and industries and, while not yet as commonplace as tractors or fertilizer on farms, they are finding their way into agriculture. Spyke, for example, says he now works on websites for his Arapaho Citrus Management Inc. company in Fort Pierce and his Orange Shop retail outlet in Citra as part of his daily or weekly routine.

“We have blogs for both [websites] and Facebook and Twitter. I handle both of them and do the blogs. My strategy right now is purely a way to get people to my websites where they can find my products and services,” Spyke says.

A website can serve as an online store front for a business, and a “blog” is a little write-up, or posting of text, on a website. While Spyke may be in the forefront of the social media trend in agriculture, he concedes that he still knows a lot more about citrus irrigation than computerized communication.

“I don’t have a smartphone and I don’t actually ‘tweet’ myself, but so many people do these days,” he says.

“Tweeting” is sending a short message through a service called Twitter, and Spyke has a registered dietitian send out little messages, such as interesting citrus recipes, via Twitter.

“It’s a way to keep customers engaged,” he says, and a growing number of his more than 300 Facebook followers are “foodies” who are interested in such tidbits and can shop for citrus-related items online directly from his Facebook page.

“It’s not big, still a small part of our business,” he says. “But it’s a new group we’re able to reach” to add to his traditional giftfruit clientele who order through his floridaorangeshop.com website or directly from his retail store.

A www.healthycitrus.com site, set up by Spyke to promote a monthly citrus subscription sales plan, links to the main floridaorangeshop retail site, as does his management company’s website, www. arapahocitrus.com.

Technology tools

Dave Palmer, who teaches technology, primarily to agriculture Extension agents in 11 central Florida counties, says farmers and growers nationwide are engaged in this new and challenging field with more questions than answers right now. For many people, terms such as Facebook and Twitter are still meaningless buzz words.

“Not everyone is comfortable with social media yet,” Palmer says. “How to use the programs and make the transition is something we’re all struggling with.”

At his own website, www.techteachtoo.com, Palmer is collecting links to social media sites and agriculture and Extension-oriented blogs, including more than 60 in Florida alone.

“This is where we are headed,” Palmer says. “Social media is one of the technology tools we really need to use.”

One of the links on Palmer’s site is for video clips about insects and other pests posted on YouTube by University of Florida entomologist Doug Caldwell in Collier County.

YouTube is a popular site that allows amateurs, as well as professionals, to upload video about virtually any topic imaginable.

And one of the short videos featuring Caldwell talking about sod webworms generated more than 1,000 views within a few months in 2010.

Palmer says that joining the online conversation through Facebook is one of the easier ways businesses, including agribusinesses, can promote their various products and services and ease into the broader field of social media.

Facebook is a leading networking site where registered users post profiles, share messages and connect with “friends” who sign up to participate.

Reaching out to customers

Al’s Family Farms uses Facebook to communicate with customers and potential customers of the longtime gift-fruit shipping business on the Indian River in Fort Pierce.

Ana Lobianco, who helps manage the retail store, also handles the Facebook account, posting photos and brief items about when the various fresh citrus varieties become available, sales, specials and hours of operation for public tours, which are held from December through Easter.

“It’s more of a word-of-mouth thing. Instead of picking up the phone, people just check Facebook,” says Lobianco, who often updates the company’s Facebook page at the same time she updates her own personal Facebook. “It’s not that time consuming. I can do it at night or any time, and reach many people instead of just one person at a time.”

Since starting the gift-fruit company’s Facebook page more than a year ago, Lobianco says, the results are mixed. “It does help with our phone-in sales, but not necessarily with locals. I haven’t had anyone walk in to the store, and say they saw us on Facebook, at least not yet.”

She says she also has used the Twitter text-message service to promote Al’s Family Farm, but found it to be less effective than Facebook as a marketing tool.

Palmer, the agriculture technology instructor, says that while he urges companies and Extension agents to at least explore social media options, he concedes that the benefits may be elusive or slow to develop.

It takes time and effort, he says, but the ability to communicate with a larger audience in multiple formats—text, photos, video and links to additional resources— can prove beneficial in the long run.

“It can be used as a productivity tool,” Palmer says, and agriculture has historically been a leader in finding ways to boost productivity. “We all have to do more with less, and this is one way to do that.”