Depending on where you live and work as a journalist, there are two basic levels of importance when it comes to coverage of the agriculture industry: “very important” or “extremely important.”
How and where food is grown or raised, how it is processed and transported, what it costs to buy and how the industry affects the economy and the environment are important to readers, advertisers, agricultural producers and policymakers.
And yet, mostly due to cutbacks, agricultural coverage has been reduced or even eliminated by many traditional media outlets.
Specialty agricultural publications still do yeoman’s work in covering the industry, but their reach beyond the industry core is limited and the news is often presented from the perspective of an industry insider.
Every journalist has the opportunity, and some might say the imperative, to cover agriculture and the vast range of news topics associated with it.
Here are some tips to start or expand your coverage of agriculture.
— Start small, then go in-depth. Take on a weather story or farmer profile to break in, then go deeper as your skills and confidence build. Do not be intimidated; most farmers want to share stories about their lives and work.
— Read widely to get story ideas. This is true on all beats, but keeping your eyes and mind open to ideas is especially important about a complex industry such as agriculture. Subscribe or go online to scan speciality publications focused on agriculture, then go deeper into topics that may be old hat to industry reporters. Read national stories about the industry and localize them. Talk to government officials who oversee the industry and read reports they or industry groups produce about concerns or issues facing the industry. Visit websites of industry or lobbying organizations.
— Sign up for online bulletins sent regularly by government regulators, industry groups, the National Weather Service, university extension offices or consumer groups. Then read the bulletins and mine for ideas.
— Drive around the countryside with the radio off. Look more closely at farms, ranches and the people who run them. What is new or unusual or special? Seek out industry trends, historical patterns or colorful feature stories worthy of reporting efforts.
— Consider how agriculture affects your own life. Wear your story-idea hat while grocery shopping, while visiting the farmers’ market or while considering the weather and its recent or long-range patterns.
— Once an idea emergences, interview government officials or industry groups for the big-picture outlook, and then ask for names and phone numbers of producers who might be willing to be interviewed by phone or in person. Be aware that some producers may be de facto industry spokespeople, so try also to find local producers on your own. Scouring social media platforms or speciality publication websites can help you find fresh producers to interview.
— Take a two-pronged approach to reporting. First, speak to a variety of sources (especially front-line producers) on the phone. Then, set up a site visit or farm tour to meet producers where they work and live to create opportunities for a deeper understanding of issues, to get great photos, audio or video, and to create opportunities for colorful, detailed writing.
— Think deeply, ask many questions and never assume. Modern agriculture is complicated and high-tech. Be patient and diligent in trying to understand the terminology or concepts involved. Confirm your understanding of a topic with sources so you can present information or processes clearly and accurately to readers.
— Ask tough questions, play devil’s advocate at times and get the other side. Not every agricultural story needs a quote from PETA, but it is important to seek out reasonable sources who question agricultural procedures or ecological impacts. Often, those sources are not anti-agriculture, but mostly want the industry to operate more efficiently and in concert with the earth.
— Prepare well for farm visits. Get clear directions, map your route and show up on time; do not arrive in your Sunday best; be ready for sun, rain or snow; have water or soda; bring a rag or napkins for messes; take written notes while also tape-recording interviews; ask permission before getting close to crops, equipment or livestock; be wary and respectful of animals; take candid photos of farmers in action but get a staged portrait just in case; never be in a hurry.
— Enjoy the writing process. As an agricultural reporter, you have the rare opportunity to bring readers into a world they may never see. Embrace that gift by writing clearly and accurately but with authority, flair and color.