With Minnesota's agriculture sector providing more than 340,000 jobs for the state and creating $75 billion in economic activity, one would think that there would be plenty of news and feature stories for the general media to cover.
One would think that thoughtful journalists would go beyond rewriting financial press releases or covering the latest water quality press conference.
No, farmers attending Farmfest who listened to an eight-member media panel learned that agriculture is a niche market or special interest group that does not warrant a reporter dedicated to covering it.
The only way that Minnesota farming would get some press is when it is connected to consumers and the broader community, panelists said. Or, when something controversial occurs.
Specifically, according to the Star Tribune editorial writer on the panel, agriculture is only of interest to that newspaper when it pertains to food safety, food security, the environment and energy. Two Metro television reporters were a touch broader in their potential coverage, yet they still linked ag coverage and its impact on the greater community of readers and viewers.
All panelists said they tried to be objective in their media coverage, which is a basic journalistic principle. However, when one panelist asked the audience if they thought the general media was fair in its coverage of agriculture, only a few hands went up. When asked if they thought ag coverage was poor, the majority of the audience raised hands in agreement.
I was not surprised that the panel's journalists had pigeon-holed agriculture. Media staffs are leaner and less likely to have the resources to devote to in-depth stories. Plus, the pressure to produce news quickly is greater, thanks to social media. And let's face it. Agriculture is a business, like manufacturing and mining. Just because people have jobs in those industries doesn't make it engaging reading.
However, I was surprised at the panel's collective plea for more connections with farmers.
The panel's consensus was:
-Farmers need to be proactive and be available before and after events so ag's voice may be heard.
-Farmers should be more open and willing to share their stories.
-Farmers need to understand that reporters are on daily deadlines so quick responses are needed.
-The state ag community needs to make it easier to have access to a variety of farmers—large, small, conventional, organic—to convey better, more accurate information about issues that affect farm operations.
-Farmers need to speak in common language that the non-farm press understands.
-Reporters prefer to speak with farmers—not their farm organizations.
-Reporters need lists of farmers who can speak to specific issues when they arise.
Given that all of our state commodity groups and farm organizations have had hundreds of farmers go through their respective media training programs, I find this hard to believe that the general media still does not know who to contact.
With little effort, these reporters could add a dozen or more farmers to their cell phone contacts by contacting dairy, beef, pork, corn, soybean, Farm Bureau and Farmers Union organizations. These groups have lists of farmers who have volunteered to serve as media spokespeople.
Reporters on the panel also said they do not receive press releases from various farm groups and organizations. Really? As a fellow journalist, I receive regular information from ag sources. I had to request that my name and contact information be added to all these media lists. That's part of my job as I strive to stay on top of news in the state. They need to make similar contacts to get on those lists.
And on the flip side, the farming community really does need to make a better effort at "being at the table," especially when that table is surrounded by folks who know nothing about today's agriculture. It's a tough seat to be in, enjoying a medium rare steak with a glass of Minnesota Marquette, while your tablemates express dismay about farm chemicals polluting our waters and animals raised in crates, pens and stalls.
When that happens, it's important to simply listen. After the talk and commentary dies down, then start asking some simple questions, such as inquiring about the source of their information. As conversation continues, farmers could explain what they do on their family farm.
The toughest challenge in all this, however, is getting more farmers comfortable with interacting with the media and trusting the reporter and editor. Generally, most farmers tend to be modest, private, introverted individuals, who prefer to avoid any limelight at all. And if they have been interviewed by the media, they may have had a souring experience with being misquoted or having their comments taken out of context. When that happens, trust with that media outlet takes time to rebuild, if at all.
To start the media panel discussion at Farmfest, the panel moderator asked the first question: What does it take for agriculture to become a story? One panelist quipped, "If you can tie ag to a new [Minnesota Vikings] stadium, that's page one."
His response was not far off the mark.
Agriculture will get its press as more farmers talk and tell journalists how they raise livestock and crops.
Heck, with all the foods served by vendors at stadiums, there is a farm link.
Get going on that one, Star Tribune.