Princeville, Ill., FFA alumna Erin Ehnle hasn’t always known that promoting agriculture would become her passion.
“I was the oldest of three children, and my mom was out on the tractor as much as my dad, so I had a lot of responsibilities in the house. I didn’t appreciate the farm very much back then.”
But Ehnle’s parents encouraged her to enroll in an agriculture class and FFA in high school, and her sophomore year she attended the National FFA Convention & Expo.
“That was a major turning point for me. I saw everything agriculture was – the scope of the industry and how passionate people are about it,” she says. “It blew me away and completely changed my mind.”
As Ehnle’s appreciation for agriculture grew, so did another one of her passions – photography. She earned enough money plowing on her family’s farm to buy a camera the fall of her senior year and began taking pictures for friends and relatives. She also spent a lot of time photographing life on the farm – her dad on the tractor, the sun setting over a field of soybeans, a tassel of corn.
In college, Ehnle landed a social media internship with the Illinois Corn Marketing Board, where she was asked to create and maintain a Facebook page, Twitter account, YouTube channel, Pinterest account or blog that would create a positive buzz about agriculture. That’s when something magical happened.
In January 2012, Ehnle launched a Facebook page called “Keeping it Real: Through the Lens of a Farm Girl,” where she posted her own farm photos, designed with interesting facts about agriculture.
“I thought I would get maybe 50 of my friends to ‘Like’ my page so it wouldn’t be embarrassing,” she laughs. “I was surprised when I had 200 Likes the first week, and 1,000 by the 10-day mark.”
The page now has almost 20,000 fans, and Ehnle has been asked to do radio interviews and speaking engagements by people curious about how she has managed to garner so much attention for agriculture.
“Erin understands agriculture and wants to help the industry, but she also has an innate ability to understand what non-farmers can relate to and what they enjoy seeing,” says Lindsay Mitchell, project coordinator for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board. “She uses the beauty she sees on the farm and describes farmers with words, quotes and facts. She helps non-farmers relate to farmers on a level everyone understands, like work ethic, family values, beauty and love.”
Ehnle never expected the page to go so far.
“There’s so much disconnect between consumers and farmers and so much negativity toward agriculture, so my goal was to get consumers’ attention,” she says. “I’ve posted some controversial images about GMOs, productivity and how far we’ve come, and some people will go off on rants about chemicals or anything political. But everybody seems to respect the farming lifestyle and the hard work farmers do.”
Ehnle understands she may never change the minds of extremists, and she admittedly has had to become “more thick-skinned.”
“I do hope to reach the middle-grounders, like the moms out there who are buying most of the food,” she says.
When Ehnle’s page was only a few months old, it landed her another internship with the Farm Journal Foundation.
“I saw her cool posts, called her up and asked her to come work for me. She helped us grow our Facebook presence by doing a cover photo once a week,” says Brian Hogue, director of operations for the Farm Journal Foundation. “She worked for us for about three months and more than doubled our Facebook followers from 1,500 to 4,000. She has a great gift for taking something important about the agricultural lifestyle and conveying it in a beautiful, interesting, provocative way.”
Hogue says the secret to Ehnle’s success is her authenticity.
“She loves and values the ag lifestyle, so she’s able to market it in a way others can’t,” he says. “She has taken on a ton of speaking engagements because people want to know how this college student from Illinois gained a bigger following than most farm businesses and organizations. She’s become a mini-celebrity in the agriculture world, and she’s just getting started.”
In the midst of college classes and exams, Ehnle continues to devote seven or eight hours a week to posting images and monitoring her Facebook page. She plans to keep the page going after college, and hopes to become a self-employed consultant for farmers and agriculture companies.
“I plan on being a lifelong advocate for agriculture,” she says. “I want to help people understand it. More than anything, I want to preserve the lifestyle on family farms, because there are no better people in the world than those in the ag industry.”
Mitchell says people connect with Ehnle’s images because they convey the things all Americans want.
“We all want safe, healthy food. We all want a beautiful earth,” Mitchell says. “We all want happy families, hardworking children and the American dream. Erin’s page talks about all these things, and everyone – farmer or not – understands and identifies with them.”
by Jessica Mozo