By Matt Reese
A short, online video starts with a cow in a pasture quickly walking away from her calf following behind. The calf is clearly interested in eating. Mama cow is having none of it, though, and picks up her pace. The narrator chimes in, “Haha, that’s fast food.”
The video is not produced or polished or even planned (or so it seems). It appears to be just another day on the farm. It is real, unscripted, unfiltered farm life. And people absolutely love it — at least Dr. Marissa Hake’s 19,000+ followers on Instagram do.
Marissa is a veterinarian and the director of animal welfare and sustainable farming for Fairlife, LLC. Prior to her current position she worked exclusively with dairy calves, which is when she started to use social media to share information about agriculture.
“It has been a journey. When I started it was just facts. More and more, though, as I was trying to build consumer trust, the ‘just the facts’ approach doesn’t resonate. Once I started sharing our farm, our family and my face on social media, it started to resonate as a way for people to connect and ask questions. I get a lot of questions about careers, being a woman in agriculture and things like that. We get asked about what we do on our farm and how we raise our animals and crops,” Marissa said. “Putting a face on a product or an industry helps people feel like there is a connection there. It is hard to personify agriculture because people are so disconnected from it. This helps people connect.”
The key to that connection is being genuine. Marissa simply shares her farm story. She lives with her husband Travis and their 2-year-old son, McCoy, on Hake Family Farms in far northwest Williams County.
The couple invested in the farm, and their future, very early on.
“We bought ground when we were very young and just married. You have to be diversified and large enough to make it work,” Marissa said. “It is a family business. We want it to grow so we can keep it in the family. We would love for McCoy to be the eighth generation on this farm someday.”
Marissa and Travis have worked hard to balance an off-farm career, farming and family.
“Our son has had a lot of tractor time. We have really balanced it. We are lucky to have family here and that helps out a lot too,” Marissa said. “We made the decision before having kids that family comes first and then the farm and then our careers. Farming is 24-7 — you could be here all day, every day and you have to find balance.”
Travis is the seventh generation on the farm and works alongside his brother, father, and uncle. They farm more than 3,200 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa and raise 1,800 head of backgrounder cattle, and 200 to 300 fat cattle for freezer beef. They also contract feed 1,000 head of hogs and do custom application and harvesting. To add value to their commodity production, the Hakes raise Pioneer Plenish identity preserved soybeans.
“All of our beans have been Plenish for 4 or 5 years now and we have been growing them since 2012. We can haul them locally, usually to Bunge or ADM, and we usually get a 40- to 50-cent premium. It has been as high as $1,” Travis said. “They are bred in Grand Rapids, Ohio so they are local and they fit our ground really well. They yield as well as non-Plenish beans or better in our test plots every year. We do end up storing quite a few of them but the local place does take fall delivery.”
The specialty soybeans also help meet consumer need and ultimately build demand for soybeans.
“Farmers raise them for the premium, but we really should be raising them for the future of the market, because this type of end product is the future,” Travis said. “I think my son’s generation won’t be able to survive the commodity markets for the farm. You’re going to have to either be exceptional at what you do or get out of commodities.”
The Hake farm’s story also includes cover crops, with the goal of getting half of the farm’s acres covered each winter. Cover crops benefit the cash crops, improve soil health and provide a feed source for the cattle operation. Cover crops are also a valuable component of manure management on the farm.
“We do a lot of oats, peas and radishes, and turnips mixed together. We do a lot of rye and barley too. We follow our manure applications with a cover crop. Most of our cattle are in pen-pack barns with straw and sawdust and the majority of that manure is stored until we can spread on wheat stubble. Hog manure is put on after wheat stubble in a cover crop before corn. We can store a year’s worth of liquid,” Travis said. “Then we no-till into the cover crop ground. If there is no cover crop we do one pass with a soil finisher or vertical tillage tool. Last year we only got 10% of our grain crops planted because we didn’t start planting until July. We planted cover crops and harvested about 1,000 acres of cover crops for cattle feed.”
The wheat straw is baled for bedding and the alfalfa is baled for feed. The different pieces of the farm puzzle continue to evolve as the new generation moves forward, but they still find a way to fit it all together. In the future, Travis would love to expand direct meat sales to add profit and find more ways to connect with the end users of the products from the farm.
The increasing amount of freezer beef sold from the farm has been another effort to derive additional income and connect with consumers.
“We have always sold freezer meat. I think we are too cheap, but people always would tell us it cost too much due to the sticker shock of buying a large quantity all at once,” Travis said. “As soon as COVID hit people just said ‘Give me all you’ve got.’ Now the challenge is getting the processing done to meet the demand. Freezer beef has marketed itself in 2020. I want to promote it, but the struggle right now is the processing.”
Travis sees great potential in finding more ways to bridge the gap between farms and end users of farm products.
“As farmers, we have to get better at selling our products so it is not the grocery store’s job or processor’s job,” Travis said. “The buyer doesn’t know who the grower is anymore.”
And it is as important as ever in 2020 to use social media to help forge that connection.
“People really want to know what is happening on farms. I used to think no one really cared about a little farm in northwest Ohio. We all live in our rural bubbles,” Marissa said. “And we need to be able to justify our actions with the things we do on our farms. If we can’t do that in a way we feel good about, then we have to question what we are doing. A lot of my followers are not farmers and at the end of the day we have to be able to tell the consumer about what we do on the farm. Even if they don’t understand it all, it helps build trust through transparency.”
Through the platforms of social media, Marissa not only tells people about agriculture, but she also shows them. While adhering to 2020 social distancing requirements, anyone anywhere in the world can join the Hakes in the tractor cab, sharing a “romantic” Saturday night dinner on the farm while planting soybeans. They can also watch as Marissa takes the high-tech tractor controls with a nervous Travis in the background.
Marissa: “You guys I’m doing it! I’m planting beans. Trav told me not to hit the rabbit, but I kinda’ want to hit the rabbit. Can we go rabbit?”
Travis (with an noticeable note of concern in his voice): “Not full rabbit.”
It is not polished in any way, but it is a real life farm story and an increasingly vital connection to a world full of curious consumers who are clearly hungry for more.
“I do think social media will continue to be an important piece of the pie for the farmer. It isn’t going anywhere. It is a platform and mode of communication that is really effective,” Marissa said. “We know consumers get their information from there. If we aren’t telling our story and sharing the facts, someone else will be.”
Follow Marissa on @calfvet.