When the New York Times Calls

My Generation

It's not always easy to be on the other end of the questions, and other things I learned while being interviewed.

Published on: January 6, 2012
This I know to be true: there's very little to humble the interviewer like being interviewed themselves.

Take yesterday, for example. The phone rang and the man on the other end told me he was with the New York Times. He wondered how my husband and I felt about the CME in the wake of the MF Global collapse.

(These sorts of things just don't happen around here. In fact, had a colleague in Kansas not told me last fall that he'd given our names to this guy, I might have accused him of being a prank call. I might've said something like, "Whatever, Brett, you are NOT with the New York Times!" That would've been bad.)

Um. So, the MF Global bankruptcy. I struggled to collect my thoughts and say something intelligible. I didn't think it was working but when he summarized what he thought I was saying, it sounded pretty good. Much better than when I actually said it. I should add that he was not calling me as a Prairie Farmer writer, but calling both my husband and me because we're farmers owed money by MF Global. Also, I was not working that day so my frame of mind was, say, a little scattered. Our 9-year-old was home sick and passing me notes asking to play on my iPhone while our 3-year-old suddenly decided she needed to cling to me like a monkey. (She was dressed up as Rapunzel, by the way. Just wanted to set the scene for you.)

Overall, he was very nice. He got to the point and didn't waste time. Maybe because he heard whiny children in the background. He seemed to want to know if we were either angry at the CME or whether our faith in the exchange was shaken by the way MF Global was able to skim money from investor holding accounts. Our take is pretty simple: we were not highly exposed on that particular day, we're waiting to see how it all shakes out, we're continuing to trade in the meantime, and if it turns out the money is completely gone and farmers are up a creek, then yes, some changes will have to be made.

He asked a few questions I didn't know the answers to – like exactly how often we traded with MF Global and what all was in the claims packet our broker sent – so I deferred to John, who was hauling grain yesterday.

(An aside to any authorities who may read this: Yes, he was in a semi and yes, he pulled off before calling. New year, new laws.)

The reporter also asked that magic question: how many acres to do you farm? I ask this all the time myself and farmers' comfort with it spans all levels. Some people don't care – their farm is what it is. For others, it's as personal as asking how much money is in their wallet. Generally, we don't care. But I had a little trepidation, being this was the New York Times and all. How would they use that? And why would their readers even care? And why do I care?

Really, what was ringing in my mind was the recent AP story with Jacksonville farmer Dale Hadden, and a handful of other farmers. The story ran in mid-December, picked up by a variety of newspapers, and basically told how some farmers had a really good 2011 and some didn't. It was fairly balanced, though they could've mentioned that the guys having the good year have had pretty crummy ones prior. Anyway. By mid-January, the local rumor mill had completely blown Dale's quotes out of proportion and it resembled very little of what he'd actually said or, even, how the story actually read.

That's the stuff that worries me, I suppose. Not so much what I say or even how the reporter interprets it, but how it gets interpreted in the countryside. The modern day equivalent of the coffee shop, you know? And I'm certain that's one reason farmers seem increasingly less willing to talk, even to Prairie Farmer. What will the neighbors say? Will it even be accurate? Should you care? What if they're a landlord? It's just another reason I work very hard to make sure the farmers I write about are comfortable with what we're sharing about them.

I spent a small amount of time fretting over this yesterday evening. Here at Prairie Farmer, I send a check copy of a story out to all my sources before it's printed, both to give them peace of mind and an opportunity to correct anything. They don't do that at the New York Times. So I had no idea what they would say about us.

In the end, it didn't matter much. John and Holly Spangler from Marietta were a scant couple dozen words at the end of the piece - the token voices from the farm. Really, I'm not even sure why we're in it. It is, however, a good piece on the latest in the CME and MF Global investigations, and I'd recommend it highly for that reason alone. But not for the farmers at the end!