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Commentary: Reporters discuss how, and why, they cover agriculture

Issue Date: September 10, 2014
By Dave Kranz
California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger talks with reporters in this file photo from 2013. Communicating with members and the non-farm audience has always been a core function for Farm Bureau.
Photo/Dave Kranz
Dave Kranz

As people have become more interested in the sources of their food, they have also become more interested in reading about where their food originates and about the people who produce it: That was the concept behind a seminar conducted in San Francisco last week titled "Journalism: The Agriculture Beat Resurgence."

Hosted by the Commonwealth Club, the event featured three Bay Area-based reporters and editors who write about agriculture for regional or nationwide audiences.

The discussion provided insights into how the reporters view their work, and into the overall interest in agricultural reporting itself: The seminar attracted a nearly full-house audience of about 80 people on a Wednesday night.

It also underlined the continuing importance of Farm Bureau's efforts to reach out to members, reporters and the general audience through all forms of media.

The moderator of the panel discussion, KQED Radio reporter/anchor Rachael Myrow, described the agriculture beat as "the intersection between fashion, health and politics."

The panelists agreed, noting how agricultural news can be classified as a business story, an environmental story, a cultural story.

"Every story is an agricultural story," said Andy Wright, deputy editor of Modern Farmer, which produces a quarterly publication and daily website updates aimed at an audience she described as young, urban and aspirational.

Where do they find story ideas? The reporters said they talk to farmers at farmers markets, talk to chefs, scan trade publications and websites, and listen to story pitches from farmers and people in the food business.

"Farmers are getting a lot more media savvy," Wright said. "They're on Facebook and Twitter. They understand the importance of connecting."

Naomi Starkman of Civil Eats—a Web-based news service that says it aims to "shift the conversation around sustainable agriculture in an effort to build economically and socially just communities"—called social-media tools "essential" to promoting stories, and encouraged farmers to hire someone on their staff who does social media and other outreach as a part of their job.

Myrow noted that much of the current reporting on agriculture focuses on "small, niche" farms.

"Are too many publications chasing the foodies instead of informing the general public about their food?" she asked.

"What's unproductive," Wright responded, "is to pit big ag vs. small agriculture. What's more important is to focus on what's working."

During part of the program devoted to audience questions, the panelists were asked if they consider themselves to have a mission to try to change people's behavior.

Tara Duggan, a food writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, said she considered it her mission to "understand what readers are most interested in," which, in her case, tended to be topics such as nutrition and sustainability.

In her case, Wright said, "I don't know that it's my role as a journalist to promote one way of eating vs. another. My role is to get stories to as wide an audience as possible."

Duggan noted that writing for a general-interest publication such as the Chronicle presents challenges in presenting stories about farming and environmental topics. For example, she said, "With the California drought, I feel people have reached the saturation point, even though it's a really important story."

As the event's organizers pointed out, the agriculture beat was once a key area of coverage for large media outlets but, as the staffs of mainstream media outlets have shrunk, agricultural reporting has been dispersed among writers who regularly handle business stories, environmental stories or general-assignment reporting.

Still, there's significant interest in stories about farming and food among both the general media and the specialty publications, websites, blogs and other outlets that have proliferated in the last few years.

We've seen that here at the California Farm Bureau, where we respond to more than 450 news media inquiries a year. During 2014, driven by interest in the impact of drought on farmers and ranchers, we have spoken with reporters from throughout California and the nation, as well as to media outlets from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, France, Japan, Singapore and Australia.

For Farm Bureau, communicating with members and the non-farm audience has always been a core function, using all forms of media. That's why, for example, stories from Ag Alert® appear not only in the newspaper, but online and as Facebook posts and tweets, as well.

Our California Bountiful® television program—produced for a non-farm audience—can be found on the air and also online and on YouTube. The TV program and California Bountiful magazine also reach out to general audiences via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

None of the outreach that Farm Bureau does would be possible without the support and cooperation of Farm Bureau members, who give of their time to talk to reporters from our media outlets and from other television, radio, newspaper and online news media every day.

As the San Francisco event showed, people are interested in what farmers and ranchers do, how they do it, and why. Only by telling their stories themselves can farmers and ranchers assure that others don't tell their stories for them.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert and manages the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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