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Perry Beeman

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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Covering the agriculture beat: An introduction

bean harvest

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Agriculture may seem like a simple job. Prepare the soil, apply chemicals, plant, harvest, repeat. Right?

In fact, it’s a complicated endeavor in the best of circumstance. Farming is bedrock industry that is directly affected by weather, natural disasters, climate change, and market forces that landowners can’t control.

Farmers, at least those still running largely independent, smaller-scale operations, are business men and women. They are a compelling mixture of agriculture scientist, commodity producer, investor, accountant, equipment-repair expert, geneticist, animal husbandry authority, soil conservationist and risk-taker.

Think of the challenges. Today’s farmers need to choose from among a dizzying array of seeds, many genetically modified. They buy elaborate combines worth more than many Midwestern homes. They have to decide how much to spend on inputs – fertilizer and chemicals – and how best to keep those essential elements on the field and out of the rivers.

And it doesn’t hurt to know how to rain dance.

Long before computers became a mainstay of most American households, many Midwest farm houses had a special, dedicated machine that delivered forecasts. The skies are part of the gamble. Grain farmers apply fertilizer, sometimes in the fall and always in the spring, with the hope that Mother Nature won’t wash away the food before the hungry seeds need it.

They use manure – you’ll hear the term ‘biosolids’ sometimes – as fertilizer to save money. The material is knifed into the soil to help keep it close to the crops.

Whether that happens depends on rainfall. And the climate is changing, adding more financial risk to farming, ranching, and orchard work.

Climate change threatens to change the usual pattern. Iowa, one of the premier grain-growing states, will become more like southern Kansas or northern Arkansas if the climate modelers are correct. That means drier, and hotter. And more prone to drought.

But the Midwest also could be flooded more. Rain is expected to come more in deluges, rather than sprinkles, raising the risk of floods that can ruin crops. Pests used to doing their damage in southern climes may move north, forcing seed companies to engineer new traits capable of fighting them.

With all those challenges though, comes promise. Scientists are looking for crops that can produce more grain with less fertilizer – good for farmers’ wallets and for the environment. There is talk of corn varieties that could be grown farther north. And grain crops may one day be mainstays in the genetic work needed to create new medicines.

seed corn

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The value of corn alone has grown by three- or four-fold in recent decades as demand grew both feed the world’s skyrocketing population and to produce ethanol.

That may seem like long-overdue good news for the farmers – who for what seemed like decades got paid the same price while soda makers who use corn sweeteners got bigger paycheck by raising product prices. But increases in grain prices are bad news for farmers who feed cattle and hogs, for example. Higher corn prices mean higher meat prices at the grocery store, typically. And the fledgling ethanol industry suffered an almost immediate shakeout when the price of corn, the main feedstuff for today’s biofuels industry, spiked.

Another new complication: regulations. Though farmers are a politically powerful lobby – don’t forget Iowa hosts the first presidential caucus of each season – they are having a hard time fighting off challenges in Washington, D.C. Taxpayers are rebelling against aid payments to farms that are enjoying those high grain and meat prices. They wonder why farms are exempt from so many environmental regulations that apply to virtually every other major industry. Can you imagine if 3M decided to spread a byproduct across the landscape without a permit, as most farmers do with both synthetic fertilizers and manure? And what if the firm wasn’t held accountable for direct damage to streams? Farmers often aren’t.

Some of those issues are accompanied by the trend to large-scale livestock confinements and feedlots, another big story.

Virtually every state has some kind of active agriculture. California is one of the heavyweights, with crops ranging from lettuce to wine grapes. Grain farms dominate the Midwest. Large-scale livestock farms, many of which are CAFOs, or confined animal feed operations, are prevalent and environmentally controversial from North Carolina to Iowa, Missouri to Utah. Sometimes the location of these facilities, and the lack of local governmental power to control their siting, sets off spirited political debates akin to when someone tries to find a spot for a new landfill or nuclear plant.

One of the nation’s oldest, most-valued industries – agriculture – offers stories virtually anywhere, from the cranberry operations of Michigan to New England syrup operations, from the Corn Belt of the Midwest to the ranches of Texas and Wyoming and the vineyards of California.

Agriculture is a business that is changing rapidly in ways that offer even more stories. The resources are rich and local. It is fertile journalistic ground, indeed.

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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.

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Covering agriculture: Identifying local stories, angles

farmer breakfast

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Agriculture stories are everywhere. Perhaps more so than on other beats, though, it pays to get out of the office.

If you are reporting in a rural area, you should stop by a local café where farmers have breakfast. You should pop by the grain elevator and strike up a conversation. Or, to the extent possible, just listen.

If there’s a local co-op, go down and meet some of the gang. Pop in at the local office of the Farm Service Agency or the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

These people know the local farmers, and they know what’s going on, from soil conservation and tillage trends to projects intended to cut erosion and protect waterways from siltation (which, by the way, raises the cost of treating drinking water, which in turn affects anyone with a tap).

Farmers can be a reserved bunch. But they generally are some of the proudest and friendliest people around, and if you can spend some time gaining their trust, they’ll be glad to tell you about their business. These are people who follow the environmental conditions that affect their business by the day. Has it rained enough? Too much? How is the soil moisture? Are we in a drought? Will it be a bad year for pests? Too wet to get into the field?

All these questions could lead to a story for you. But it’s good to think about topics that hit home. When you shop for groceries, pay attention to produce and meat prices. They can be ready stories. When grain prices started rising after years of $2 a bushel corn, that was good news for the farmers who grow those crops. But high-priced grain often means price hikes at the meat market, which directly affects many of your readers. It can put pressure on biofuels plants, too.
And there can be weirdness in the produce markets, brought on by everything from frost and freeze problems in Florida’s orchards to droughts across the land. One time some years ago tomatoes were selling in Des Moines for more per pound than the top sirloin steak. That’s a story consumers will read, even if it’s not necessarily good news.

You should also comb key websites, from the Farm Bureau to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It’s also a good idea to check environmental sites, such as the Environmental Working Group, your local environmental council, if you have one, or Sierra Club. The environmental effects of agriculture are big news, and have one Pulitzer Prizes for the likes of the now-retired James Risser, who once covered those issues for The Des Moines Register.

farm convention

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack speaks at the American Farm Bureau Annual Meeting. Photo by Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture

And don’t forget other angles related to agriculture. The farm crisis of the ‘80s was front page news for years. Get to know the local bankers who lend farmers money, and watch for signs of trouble. A sure one: a long list of farm sales in the classifieds.

Farming can be dangerous, and sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to the loss of limbs, or lives, on the back forty. Reporter Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee won a Pulitzer while he was at the Des Moines Register, reporting on those very issues. Look for patterns that might suggest a manufacturer’s equipment has safety problems.

If you can, attend your local Farm Bureau convention, where delegates decide policy. These can be controversial and attract opposition, but they show what is on farmers’ minds and how they would like to see the agricultural world run. Watch the newsletters and websites of key members of Congress – those on the agriculture committee, for example – to see what is brewing.

Anytime the Farm Bill is up for a rewrite there is potential for all kinds of news. Will lawmakers make this the year that they dredge up the money to pay for more soil conservation? Will farmers be required to use sound conservation techniques in exchange for federal assistance? Will there be any action to stem the flow of nitrogen from the Corn Belt to the Gulf of Mexico, where the fertilizer causes oxygen depletion in an area commonly called the Dead Zone?

As with many beats, it’s best to look for ways agriculture affects lives, on and off the farm. You won’t have to look far for impact.

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Covering agriculture: Resources and sourcing

farmers market

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Here are a list of resources to aid in your coverage of agriculture-related topic.

People to talk to
To cover the agriculture beat with precision, you have to develop rich sources. Here are a few groups you should be chatting with frequently.

  • Farmers, especially as spring planting approaches in May and June, and at harvest in October and November. Catch them over winter in the north, for long-term projects. They’ll have more time.
  • Farm groups
  • Environmental groups
  • University researchers , especially when they release new, peer-reviewed studies.
  • Economists

Scanning the Web
It’s important to check agriculture-related websites frequently. Below are sites to make sure you bookmark.

  • CropLife International – industry group that offers information on pesticides and other chemical use, plus developments in biotech and seeds.
  • Chicago Board of Trade - for crop prices, grain futures, other news.
  • National Cotton Council - a one-stop shop for industry news.
  • Environmental Working Group – nonprofit organization that has analyzed federal payments to farmers, showing that a small share get the bulk of the aid.
  • North American Agricultural Journalists – an association of farm editors and writers, runs an annual contest and an annual conference.
  • Society of Environmental Journalists - resources for staff journalists and freelancers, including huge topical index of sources, a member listserv offering advice on deadline, an elaborate website with resources even for nonmembers, and an annual conference that often examines agricultural issues.

Developing a library of resources 
Find your favorite reading chair and cozy up with one of these agriculture books. This reading list will ensure you have a solid grasp of key topics.

  • The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America’s Food Supply, by Ken Midkiff.
  • Farm, by Richard Rhodes
  • Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
  • Three Farms, by Mark Kramer
  • Fateful Harves, by Duff Wilson
  • CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations): The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, edited by Daniel Imhoff Watershed Media
  • The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics, by Paul Thompson.
  • Foodfight: The citizen’s guide to a food and farm bill, by Daniel Imhoff
  • Raising a Stink: The Struggle over Factory Hog Farms in Nebraska, by Carolyn Johnson
  • The Economics of Food: How Feeding and Fueling the Planet Affects Food Prices, by Patrick Westoff
  • Against the Grain, by Richard Manning
  • Grassland, by Richard Manning
  • Food Fray, by Lisa Weasel
  • Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser
  • Long Deep Furrow: 3 Centuries of Farming in New England, by Howard S. Russell, Mark Lapping
  • Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner
  • Hole in the Sky, by Bill Kittredge
  • Parsnips in the Snow ,by Mary Swander
  • Where Our Food Comes From – Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine, by Gary Paul Nabhan
  • Chasing Chiles – Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail,  by Kurt Michael Friese, Kraig Kraft, Gary Nabhan
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Covering agriculture: Glossary of terms, concepts

Understanding the basic terms associated with agriculture-related topics will give you the knowledge base to conduct solid interviews and identify key trends.

To get you started, here’s a list of keywords to familiarize yourself with:

letterAAgricultural Adjustment Act of 1933: This set up the system of price supports.

Agriculture Census: A treasure chest of information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on how the land is used, and what is raised on it.

Agronomy: The science of growing crops and managing soil.

Alternative farming: Basically anything but growing one crop with conventional fertilizer. Can mean using only manure for fertilizer, growing organic crops, using integrated pest control.

American Farm Bureau FederationMainstay farm organization, pushes for policies that benefit agriculture.

Animal unit:  A unit of measure basedon feed requirements. A 1,000 pound beef cow equals one animal unit, for example.

Aquaculture: Producing aquatic animals or plants in ponds, tanks or other controlled environments. Example: catfish.

Artificial insemination (AI): The injection of semen into a female animal with a syringe.

Biological control of pests: The use of natural enemies such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to control pests.

Biologics: Serums, vaccines and other living or inactive organisms used to prevent disease.

Biotechnology: Gene manipulation and transfer, plant regeneration and other techniques using living systems.

Brucellosis: A contagious disease in beef and dairy cattle. Causes abortions. In humans, known as undulant fever.

BST: Bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone. A hormone from the pituitary gland of cattle. Controls amount of milk produced by cows.

letter cCombine: Machine used to harvest grain.

Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs):  Commonly called confinements, these are the increasingly concentrated livestock operations that are the backbone of today’s meat industry. They also are opposed by many environmentalists, small –scale farmers and others who see them as a unhealthy concentration of wealth and an environmentally dicey operation due to the amount of manure stored and spread in one area.

Census of Agriculture: Five-year check of the number of farms, land in farms, and other key statistics. Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Check-off programs: Research and promotion programs backed by assessments paid by farmers.

Chicago Board of Trade: Futures and options exchange, now run by CME Group. Prime source for grain prices.

Commodities: Grain, livestock, butter, milk, etc. For grain prices, see the Chicago Board of Trade.

Commodity Credit Corporation: Set up under USDA to protect farm prices. Includes loans that allow farmers to hold grain until prices rise.

Compost: Organic matter such as leaves or corn stalks that have been decomposed in a pile and turned into a soil-like material.

Conservation compliance: Some federal aid requires that farmers working highly erodible land follow a conservation plan.

Conservation district:  Any unit of local government formed to carry out a local soil and water conservation program.

Conservation plan: Plans and practices meant to retain soil health.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP): Voluntary program through U.S. Department of Agriculture that offers rent payments to farmers who use practices to save soil, which in turn provides wildlife habitat and can improve water quality.

Contour farming: Planting at right angles to the natural slope to cut soil erosion.

Contract feeder: Those who raise livestock, hogs for example, which are owned by someone else, often a corporation.

Co-ops: Cooperatives, which are organizations owned and run by farmers, who share in the responsibilities and profits. Many early ethanol plants were set up this way, as were long-standing grain elevator operations and some local power utilities.

Cooperative Extension System: A network that links land-grant universities with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A good source of information and tips on a wide range of agricultural topics.

Crop rotation: Changing crops from year to year to keep the soil healthy. For example, planting soybeans after a corn crop because soybeans are a legume that fixes nitrogen in the soil. Corn consumes nitrogen.

Dead zones: Areas of low oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Fertilizer runoff leads to algae blooms. When the algae die, oxygen is consumed, forcing sea creatures to move to a different area or die.

Disaster payments: Federal payments made to farmers when a natural disaster prevents planting or hurts yields.

Environmental Working Group: A nonprofit organization that has analyzed federal payments to farmers, showing that a small share get the bulk of the aid.

Ethanol: An alcohol fuel produced from corn, soybeans, sugar cane or other organic material.

Extension service: Education arm of land-grant universities, often with a wealth of information for reporters on both agriculture and climate.

letter fFeedlots: Open areas where livestock, particularly cattle, are raised.

Fertilizer: Any organic or inorganic material used to feed a crop. Includes nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from synthetic sources and manure.

Fungicide: A chemical used to kill fungi on crops.

General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade: Known as GATT, an agreement that sets conduct codes for international trade.

Genetic engineering: Genetic modification of organisms to transfer traits.

Genome: All the genetic material in the chromosomes of an organism.

Green manure: Plants plowed under to improve soil.

Head: The business end of a combine or other farm machine, for example the apparatus used to harvest corn.

Herbicide: Chemicals that kill weeds.

Hog lots: A somewhat old-fashioned term that connotes raising hogs in a feedlot. In most cases, you’ll be dealing with operations that raise hogs in climate-controlled, heavily automated confinement buildings, with thousands of hogs in a few buildings.

Humus: Decomposed organic matter in soil that provides nutrients and helps hold moisture.

Hydroponics: Growing of plants in fertilized water.

Integrated crop management: A system that uses cropping techniques to control pests, including the use of resistant plants.

Inputs: The items needed to grow a crop, including fertilizers and pesticides.

Local control: County zoning of livestock confinements. Not allowed in many states.

Leaching: The loss of fertilizer when rain washes it from the soil.

Legumes: Plants such as peas, beans, soybeans, peanuts, clovers, alfalfas, and sweet clovers that convert nitrogen from the air in to nitrates in the soil.

letter nNational Cotton Council: One-stop shop for industry news.

No till: Technique in which crop stubble is left on the field to hold soil in place.

Nematode:  Microscopic soil worms that attack roots.

Nonpoint source pollution: Runoff from farms that can include soil, pesticides and chemicals.

North American Agricultural Journalists: Association of farm editors and writers, runs an annual contest.

National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES): Machinery in the Clean Water Act that requires permits for many industries and sewage plants that discharge treated wastes into rivers. Many livestock operations don’t need the permits, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has moved to require them of larger livestock operations.

Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS):  Federal department, part of USDA that focuses on conservation and related work. Originally established as the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, its programs promote conservation on the 70 percent of the nation’s land that is privately owned.Nutrient. A chemical element or compound plants need to grow.

Organic farming: A system that avoids using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and growth regulators in feed.

Pesticides: Chemicals that kill crop pests such as root worms.

Price support programs: Government programs that attempt to keep farm prices above a certain level.

Public Law 480 (P.L. 480): Common name for the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954, aimed at expanding foreign markets for U.S. agricultural products.

Rangeland: Grassy areas used for livestock grazing.

Riparian rights: Legal water rights of a person owning land bordering a river or lake.

Ruminant: Animals such as cattle and deer with stomachs that have four compartments.

letter sSilage:  Fermented, chopped up grass, legumes, corn stalks used as animal feed..

Society of Environmental Journalists: Organization serving staff journalists and freelancers. Website includes huge topical index of sources. Member listserv offers advice on deadline. Annual conference often examines agricultural issues.

Sodbuster: Part of the Food Security Act of 1985 designed to discourage cropping on highly erodible land.

Soil erosion: T values. The soil erosion tolerance rate. Basically, the rate at which soil can be lost without losing too much. Takes into consideration how quickly new soil forms.

Sustainable agriculture: Systems that seek to grow crops and livestock while protecting the environment and using resources efficiently.

Swampbuster: Part of the Food Security Act of 1985 that discourages converting wetlands to crop fields.

Tillage: How the land is prepared for planting.

Yields: The amount of grain grown on a farm, usually expressed in bushels per acre.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA):  runs the main farm support programs, including aid payments and environmental programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers for planting natural habitat on marginal crop ground.

Zoonotic diseases: Diseases that can be spread from animals to humans.