Tractors, twine … and a news app? For Northern Ireland’s farmers, it’s a must…

By Ruth Rodgers

Wellies, baler twine and a tractor — the stereotypical ‘tools of the trade’ which everyone associates with the farmer. But in today’s industry real life is very far from the townie concept — by a country mile!

Ruth Rodgers

High tech farm machinery, robotic milking parlours, digital tag scanners and recorders and many many other forms of technology have put farmers at the top of the tree when it comes to being techno savvy.

Farming is big business in Northern Ireland and the agri-food industry as a whole turns over more than £4.5 billion every year, and supports one in eight jobs in the UK, making it a cornerstone of the province’s economy and farmers play a key role in this.

Currently, there are over 29,000 farmers in Northern Ireland producing the wide variety of raw materials needed by processors and retailers to meet the demands of consumers. Farming in Northern Ireland is not just a job but it is a way of life. Rural communities here are extremely close knit and farmers and farming families are at the heart of these communities.

Since 1963 Farming Life has been at the heart of this community too, keeping the industry up to date with all the latest development, research and market details. And of course we have moved with the times too, with the development of our website, facebook page, and twitter account.

The average age of a farmer in Northern Ireland is 59, but we have a thriving network of young farmer clubs where the up and coming generation is enthusiastically embracing the industry and lifestyle — with a smartphone stuck to their ear. These are the young guys (and girls) that you spot every silage and slurry season in a fleet of John Deere’s or Massey Fergusons, ‘flat lit’ over the course of 19 hour days on a diet of Red Bull! How do we re-connect with this generation?

Enter the concept of the Farming Life web app!

Tentative meetings began early in the year to investigate the concept of a web based app which could become the ‘go-to’ place for all the latest farming news. After looking at some of the other JP apps, such as Football Wire and the Scottish Cities app, we felt it was a concept worth taking further.

And our confidence in the possibility of the app was further strengthened when advertising manager Diane Burke quickly secured significant financial banking from Danske Bank in Northern Ireland, who pride themselves in being considered as the farmers’ bank, to be the main sponsor on the app.

Development work got underway in earnest with the aim of launching the app at the annual Royal Ulster Agricultural Society’s Balmoral Show in May. This four day event is one of the largest agricultural shows in Ireland, held on the former Maze prison site. It is a must attend event for everyone in the farming community in Northern Ireland.

It’s a busy show too for everyone in the News Letter and Farming Life, with a pre show supplement of 64 pages in Farming Life, additional reporting in the News Letter and thousands of copies of the daily title sold throughout the course of the four days.

Another highlight is the annual competition run in conjunction with Isuzu with one lucky reader driving off in a new pick-up!

Planning meetings gathered pace in late April and we were well on course for the launch of the app in May. The project was driven by Ross Perth in Edinburgh who was able to use his expertise from his work on previous apps to advise editorial on the best way to populate the app — what type of stories, how many and when etc. When we finally had access to the publishing engine PublishThis things started to fall into place and it quickly became apparent that it was a system which is very simple to use.

From an editorial point of view the advantages of having this tool at our disposal is huge. We have a range of baskets which give us a news feed of trending stories from specific farming publications, Northern Ireland dailies and from publications and websites across the UK and further afield. It gives us access to stories that we might otherwise miss out on, while of course giving the original source its due credit.

As the launch day finally dawned extra staff were drafted in at Balmoral to help to give it an extra push as the app was used as the primary tool for readers to enter the competition for the Isuzu pick-up.

Throughout the show a steady stream of people visited the Farming Life stand to sign up for the app and enter the competition. We also drafted in support from the Presidents of both the Ulster Farmers’ Union and the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster who were keen to sign up too. A daily news alert is sent to all subscribers at lunchtime every day giving them the most recent six stories on the app.

So far reaction to the app has been very positive but it is very much a process of trial and error as we learn what works well and what doesn’t. Farmers don’t work nine to five, so the normal rules of the digital clock aren’t as relevant for our readership who are often in the parlour by 5.30am.

Audience growth has been steady but it is clear that farmers — like all readers — react best to hard news stories. Our best day so far saw 10,000 people click on to read a story about a local farmer losing £150,000 from his bank account by scammers! And we have learned too that facebook is also vital to give stories on the app an extra push.

Looking ahead to 2019, we are confident that the app will continue to grow in audience and it remains a key tool in our kit for the farming community. Farming Life has experienced a fantastic year of support from our readers and advertisers and we hope that we will be around for many more years to come as we develop to meet the changing needs of the industry but more importantly our readers.

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