Farmers Use Slack and Share Memes At Work, Too

Some things are the same whether you work in an office in Brooklyn or a dairy farm in Pennsylvania.

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Sep 5 2016, 11:00am

Aaron Wickstrom checks his phone while working on his 2,400-cow dairy farm. Image: Ryan Flynn Photography

Running a dairy farm is a 24-hour a day job. So when the manure-separator pump—used to filter waste that's reused as fertilizer—got clogged at 3 AM on Aaron Wickstrom's dairy farm, he got out of bed to fix it.

"The equipment will send out an SMS alert to about five of us, and we [were] all too, I guess, polite to call someone else and wake them up," Wickstrom said. "So within five minutes there [would be] three of us out there for something that takes ten minutes, and one person, to fix. It was kind of ridiculous."

That was before Wickstrom found a new way of communicating with his team that didn't require an old-fashioned phone call. Modern farms are growing more high tech each day, from using self-driving tractors to installing automated cow-milking robots. But some of the tools might look familiar to the rest of us working in offices. Farmers are now on Slack.

"Everybody is using it all the time, unless it's an emergency when they'll call each other," said Wickstrom, who uses the cloud-based chat software to communicate with his 31 employees. "We have private channels set up for different areas of the dairy and the farm. So we have a feed channel, and if something happens—like a truckload of canola meal doesn't show up—they will use that private channel so we're not constantly blasting everybody with messages that don't relate to them."

Wickstrom told me it took a little persuading to convince some of the older generation workers to adopt the new technology, but after a 15 minute tutorial on a smartphone, everybody was on board. Just like most offices that use the software, Wickstrom and his team use Slack to organize daily tasks for his 1,000-acre, 2,400-cow operation, communicate any issues, and, of course, share jokes and memes.

"Oh yeah, the guys do enjoy doing that," Wickstrom said. "As long as it's respectful and clean, that's fine."

Though it's not as pervasive in farming as other industries (Wickstrom told me he was the first farmer he knew of to adopt Slack), chat software is starting to gain popularity. But it's not the only office software that farmers have adopted.

"Imagine my 70-year-old father vaccinating heifers in a pen while holding a smartphone."

Steve Harnish, a 37-year-old dairy farmer in Pennsylvania, told me he uses Gmail, Google Sheets, Google Keep, and WhatsApp for organizing tasks on his 200-cow farm. He'll make up a chore list the night before and upload to Google Keep (a cloud-based notepad app). Then, each of the employees can pull up the list on their phone the next morning and get to work, without needing to check in with everyone.

Harnish said he tried Slack, but found cobbling together different tools works best for now. He does think there's a market for an all-in-one, farming-focused app that would integrate chore lists, chat functions, and records.

"The challenge with using some of the new communication platforms on farms is that so many of the owners and employees are 60 plus," Harnish said. "We're not like a media company or tech startup filled with people that grew up in front of a screen."

"Imagine my 70-year-old father vaccinating heifers in a pen while holding a smartphone in one hand instead of a paper list. If even one person isn't comfortable using modern mobile phones they get blacked out from everything shared across the group," he told me.

This was an issue that was echoed on Reddit, when I asked the r/farming subreddit about the communication tech they use. Besides an unfamiliarity with newer tech, many older farmers have just been doing things a certain way for decades, and don't see the need for change, they said. Combined with limited internet and 4G data connections in many rural areas, it makes change difficult.

But as the next generation embraces new technology, a shift will start to occur. In the meantime, some farms will stick to the old-fashioned way of communicating.

"Does the middle finger count?" one Redditor replied. "It's the most popular method when moving cattle."