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Covering agriculture: Challenges

night farming

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Covering agriculture presents some challenges, like any other business beat. Here are a few things to watch.

Don’t oversimplify. Agriculture stories can be complicated. Think about how the news you are covering affects different sectors of the ag industry, and, of course, various consumers. A rise in grain prices probably means higher meat prices. Grain exports from Brazil could affect American markets. A mad cow scare in Britain could affect beef markets in the United States.

Know the players, hold them all accountable. Some farm groups want to vilify environmentalists for raising questions about farm pollution. Some environmental groups fail to give credit to the large number of farmers who work hard and spend plenty of cash to save soil and reduce pollution, in most cases voluntarily. Be fair, listen to all sides of agriculture issues, and keep asking the central questions: So what? How does this affect my readers? What is the impact of this story?

Understand the terminology. Make sure you know what the source is talking about, and don’t worry about asking “stupid” questions, because there aren’t any. If you don’t know what CRP means (Conservation Reserve Program, a key voluntary U.S. program to provide habitat and soil conservation, ask. If you think heifers are a specific breed of cattle, go to the dictionary.

Keep debates on your radar. Agriculture might seem like a straightforward, worthy businesses. In ways, it is. But don’t miss the news of the many controversies that surround this industry. Should farmers avoid the pollution controls applied to so many other industries? Should Americans subsidize grain prices when they have risen sharply? Should farmers who take federal aid faced aggressively enforced requirements that they install soil conservation practices? Should large-scale livestock confinements face sewage regulations similar to factories?

Track the impact of prices. Don’t assume that higher grain prices are universally good for farmers. For those that also raise livestock or invest in ethanol plants, the higher grain prices end up increasing the cost of raising cattle, for example.

Dig inside the politics. Don’t divorce your stories from the underlying political scene. You should always follow the money in the stories, but don’t forget the political capital. Farmers are one of the most powerful lobbies out there. Iowa’s caucuses begin every presidential election cycle. Pay attention. Read the campaign finance disclosure forms for your local elected officials and members of Congress.

Get your shoes muddy. You can’t really get to know farming unless you get out and get some dirt under your nails. Visit a hog confinement, where you’ll be asked to shower before and after your visit, so be prepared. Get out in the field. Ride along in a combine. And don’t forget to stop by the local café for some eggs and current events.

Keep an eye on changes. Finally, like any business, this one changes. Every time there is a Farm Bill rewrite, the rules of agriculture change a bit. Keep up on the changing political landscape. Watch for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to become more aggressive on agricultural issues, eventually.

About the Author

Perry Beeman is a senior reporter at The Des Moines Register, focusing on environmental and agricultural issues. He has won several national awards from North American Agricultural Journalists and was a finalist for the 2008 Gerald Loeb Award at UCLA's Anderson School of Management for coverage of the environmental implications of the biofuels industry.

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