Perspectives Online

N.C. Extension educators are all a-Twitter


Debbie Roos is among the Cooperative Extension agents using Twitter to reach people with research-based information on agriculture. She tweets @GrowSmallFarms.

Photo by Marc Hall

When agricultural extension agent Debbie Roos first learned about the Internet service Twitter, she was, as she puts it, a decided non-believer.  Why in the world, she wondered, would people want to send and receive messages limited to just 140 characters – fewer letters than are in this sentence?

But today, after 383 “tweets” and counting, Roos – or @growsmallfarms, as she’s known in the Twitterverse – has done an about-face.

“I fell in love with Twitter last summer. It really works,” she says. “A lot of people who follow me now on Twitter weren’t familiar with my programs, and the potential to reach even more people is high,” she says.

Twitter isn’t the only way Extension agents are making use of social media to spread Internet information designed to improve the quality of life, the environment and the economy in North Carolina. Rockingham County Extension Director Brenda Sutton – aka “The Produce Lady” – has her own channel on YouTube . There, she gives video tips on buying, storing and preparing various types of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Meanwhile, across the state, 4-H agents have set up blogs and Facebook accounts to share news and build online communities for computer-savvy 4-H’ers and their parents.


Through Twitter, Roos says, she’s been able to raise the visibility of her Chatham County educational programs related to sustainable, organic and alternative agriculture. She has also increased her 384 Twitter followers’ awareness of North Carolina Cooperative Extension and of issues related to small farms.  

Roos also been able to direct Internet users to her resource-rich Web site, Growing Small Farms (http://www.growingsmallfarms.org ).

And, she says, she’s been learning a lot from the people she follows on Twitter: extension colleagues, growers and others from all over the country.

Roos’ tweets range from links to agricultural news reports she runs across on the Internet, to notices of her upcoming workshops and field days, to information about publications developed by agriculture specialists at N.C. State and other universities.

When it comes to tweeting for Cooperative Extension, Roos is not alone.

In Western North Carolina, area specialized commercial horticulture agent Sue Colucci (@SuzyNCSU) has been using Twitter for more than a year to reach out to vegetable and fruit growers. She thinks it’s a great way to quickly reach busy people who don’t have much time to read. It also creates a rich and searchable archive of information accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she says.

Colucci’s Western N.C. colleague Dr. Jeanine Davis, a horticulture specialist based in Mills River, also found a new audience through Twitter (@JeanineNCSU) and Facebook. She uses these venues to send announcements and provide links to resources she’s posted on her blog (http://ncalternativecropsandorganics.blogspot.com/).

 While that’s been exciting, it hasn’t been without a downside: It takes time, she says, which is often in short supply for Extension educators.

“I have to be very careful to not leave out more traditional clientele,” Davis says. “So, now if I send out an announcement, I send it on Twitter and Facebook, usually with a link to a more lengthy article on my blog. I send it by email to four listservs and several local reporters.

“Depending on the content, I might have our secretary also post it on one or more of my three Web sites. So time management is an issue. I try to limit myself to 30 minutes a day.”

Across the state from Davis, in Eastern North Carolina, cotton agent and Martin County Extension Director J.B. Coltrain is also using Twitter. His goal: to reach a small group of farmers interested in highly localized information about when to plant cotton and when moth counts reach a level when it’s advisable to use insecticides.

In the off-season, Coltrain also uses the feed to announce production meetings and to share information about such topics as cotton variety characteristics.

“For me, the use of Twitter is strictly business. You will not learn that I might dread Mondays, nor will I be tweeting ‘TGIF,” he says.

Twitter is quick, easy and free, Coltrain says, but like his fellow tweeting agents, he says he can’t just drop older methods of communication, like the recorded telephone messages he’s used to reach growers for years. That’s because some producers aren’t ready to make the switch.

 “I wish I could tell you that all Martin County farmers use this wonderful service, but they don’t. In spite of the fact that they have to do nothing once they set it up, that setting up part is the killer,” he says. “The dozen or so farmers who follow my tweets were basically set up by me.”

Still, he says, “There is definitely a place for Twitter in information dissemination.”

Colucci and Roos both encourage their fellow agents to give Twitter a try.

“The Internet can suck a lot of time out of you, but Extension really needs to be there because that’s the first place a lot of people go to find answers,” Colucci says. “I’d say to other agents, ‘Don’t be afraid. Just get on it and try it.’”  -- Dee  Shore