Southern New Mexico farmer Jay Hill is seldom without his mobile phone, even when he’s cutting hay and feeding cattle. If he’s not posting photos on Instagram of the day’s onion harvest, he may be Facebooking with a food blogger or fielding calls from Fortune magazine or The New York Times.
The New York Times?
Yes. Since being named one of the Five Faces of Agriculture for 2014-15 by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) last November, the 31-year-old Hill has become a very public advocate for agriculture. Reporters, food activists and farming enthusiasts all over the country now follow him on social media as he tells how food is produced at his family’s Hill Farms outside Mesilla Park, N.M.
“You have to be willing to put yourself out there to build trust with consumers.”
– Jay Hill
“Our role (as USFRA spokesmen) is to show the general public what we do and to share how we do it responsibly,” says Hill, who sees his job as helping to bridge the knowledge gap between his farm and the consumer’s fork.
The Faces of Farming and Ranching program is designed to help put real faces on agriculture. It does this by selecting five outstanding farmers and ranchers every year who are proud of what they do and are actively involved in sharing their stories with the public and on social media.
A Farmer by Choice
Hill is particularly proud that even though he didn’t grow up on a full-time farm, he chose to become a farmer.
“My whole ag career started in a sandbox behind our house,” Hill says of the 10 acres where his family grew alfalfa. “I enjoyed watching all the farmers around us, and I was interested in the agricultural lifestyle.”
He pushed his dad, Jim, who was raised on a farm in Tennessee, to purchase more land, and 16 years ago they planted their first vegetable crops together when Hill was just 15.
After graduating from New Mexico State University in 2008, he took over management of the farm, and in 2010 he turned to Ag New Mexico Farm Credit for financing to expand the operation.
“They’re willing to step outside the box to help a young person,” he says of the lender.
Today, Hill partners with his dad on their 750-acre farm, producing green and red chile, onions, lettuce, pecans, pinto beans, corn and hay, with help from his brother, nephew and seven employees. In addition, he runs a cow-calf herd, and he and his wife, Katie, a dental hygienist, are building a farm store where they’ll retail fresh produce.
A Winning Video
It was an old college friend, now “agvocating” in Illinois, who pestered Hill to enter the Faces of Agriculture competition last fall. Hill submitted an unscripted video of himself speaking about his love of farming and his ideas for educating consumers about their food sources, and was chosen from a field of hundreds to be one of the final five spokespeople.
Since going through the USFRA’s intensive speaker training program, Hill has spoken at conferences, stepped up his presence on social media, where he has more than 2,000 followers, and has talked to numerous members of the media.
Convinced that farmers must do their part to assure consumers that they are growing a healthy product, he invites reporters to visit his farm, an offer a food blogger recently accepted.
“I tell them I’ll even pick them up at the airport,” he says.
Photos Tell the Story
An avid photographer, he posts images and video of his farm activities on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, often accompanied by commentary and relevant facts. Photos detailing his veterinarian’s efforts to save a baby calf during a difficult delivery brought a heartfelt response from followers, while a stark photo of a brewing hail storm on the first day of onion harvest illustrated how his livelihood is at the mercy of the weather.
“With my camera, I’m showing on a day-to-day basis what I do on the farm,” Hill says. “I find the more I talk to people and listen, the more they listen to me.” He’s also received less negative feedback from critics since he started posting more farm photos.
“It’s scary to give people the tools to get in your personal space,” he admits, “but it’s so necessary. You have to be willing to put yourself out there to build trust with consumers.
“We have to be able to sit in the hot seat and answer the tough questions.” — Staff
The USFRA is made up of more than 80 farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners, including Farm Credit. It works to engage in dialogue with consumers about how today’s food is grown and raised. For more information, visit www.fooddialogues.com.