The business of agriculture may not seem as exciting as tech and the economy; however, plenty of intriguing stories exist within agribusiness. This blog outlines some core themes and trends reporters can cover within this fascinating and vital business sector.
Explore the crop stories
With America being such a huge country, each state offers its own unique crops. Approach the agricultural departments of your local university to learn about what your state actually offers in terms of produce, grain and meat. For instance, living in North Carolina for five years now, I’ve learned North Carolina is one of the nation’s leading producers of sweet potatoes, the second-largest producer of Christmas trees, (after Oregon) and a dominant producer of hogs. Consult the website of your state Department of Agriculture for the most current data on agriculture in your area. You can explore whether a trend exists by investigating the following through research and conversations with sources:
- Is crop production up or down?
- What new crops are entering your state?
- Why are these new crops emerging?
- What challenges, if any, do producers face?
Profile a family-run business
Often, farms remain family-run businesses and provide an excellent opportunity to offer your readers slice-of-life insight into their daily workings. For instance, with the growing movement at universities to provide more wholesome, locally produced food, North Carolina State University partners with small businesses that provide services such as composting. NC Dining sends its compost to an alumna-owned business Separately, the Cotton of the Carolinas Project — a North Carolina movement to produce T-shirts and other garments from cotton grown, milled, ginned and dyed all within a few hundred miles of the cotton farm — works with a family run cotton farm several generations long. Farms, and the owners, make really intriguing, and compelling, profiles.
Explore intriguing technologies
Farms provide insight into ingenious technologies and storage techniques. Explore some of the new inventions and bring these to your reader. For instance, with sweet potato production so high in North Carolina, an enterprising agricultural professor at North Carolina State University designed an ingenious storage technique which stopped potatoes from rotting and spoiling. I wrote about this innovation for North Carolina State University’s weekly Bulletin. The China drone manufacturer DGI has come out with a drone to help spray crops, removing some of the risk for the labor force frequently exposed to damaging sprays.
Seek out human interest stories
Agriculture also provides surprising amounts of tension and sometimes strife. News broke in North Carolina when a Human Rights Watch report found tobacco farmers still using child labor (youth aged under 18) to pick tobacco leaves from the fields. In New Zealand, India, and other countries, the pressures from an economic downturn in commodities such as dairy tend to make farmers vulnerable for suicide. Positive human interest stories within agriculture can also surface. For instance, Jason Brown, a former NFL player gave up a prosperous career to farm produce. Brown gives away his crops to food banks each season.
Write a trend story around the data
You can also seek out data from large government organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and write about farmers and other agricultural workers within that trend. For instance, the USDA reported the number of women farming or ranching on America’s lands peaked to 1 million in 2013. (I wrote on this trend years ago for the Economist, but the numbers are certainly still growing). Consider interviewing women working within agriculture and ask:
- What inspires them?
- Do they farm full-time or keep their farm alongside a day job?
- What struggles, if any, exist for women working on the land? Describe the biggest challenge and then the biggest joy.
- Has the industry become more accommodating to women by providing equipment and clothing more suitable for their smaller body size?
Also look at large agricultural companies, such as Bayer Crop Science and Monsanto, for trend stories. For instance, when Bayer Crop Science opened its bee care center, it turned out other agribusiness companies were also investigating bee health and its impacts on pollination. I wrote on the center and the trend behind corporate interest in bee health for Guardian Sustainable Business.
“Agriculture” by Flickr user “Rex Turgan” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Debbi G McCullough runs Hanging Rock Media. She writes and edits for the Guardian’s Guardian Labs, Washington Post’s WP BrandStudio and the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. She also teaches business communication part-time at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a United Nations Foundations press fellow 2016.