Plowing Ahead

A farm newspaper's future

Agriculture is and always has been the backbone of the California economy. Last year, Stanislaus County exported agriculture products to eighty-five countries and brought in a farm gate value of $2.6 billion. With so much of the state’s economy relying on Central Valley farmers, it’s a shame that many residents still do not grasp agriculture’s importance.

The public disconnect from agriculture isn’t hard to understand. In our county, jobless rates hover at 16 percent; the poverty rate is nearly 20 percent; widespread methamphetamine use drives theft; and gang-related homicides are increasingly common. The public simply has other things to think about—and the news media have other things to cover.

The Modesto Bee has always done a good job of covering agricultural issues. But the Bee, like many other newspapers its size, has been forced to make choices that affect the depth and the breadth of its coverage. There’s no guarantee that agricultural coverage will remain a top priority for the paper. If agricultural news is to remain strong in the Modesto region, other outlets might have to fill in the gaps.

The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau has advocated for farmers for nearly ninety-five years. It has long attempted to bring ag news to the public through its weekly newspaper, The Stanislaus Farm News, which I edit. It is the nation’s only weekly farm bureau newspaper. We also publish thirteen special editions each year, giving in-depth coverage to topics affecting specific commodities—dairy, nuts, nursery, poultry, wine grapes, and many more.

The Farm News averages twelve to sixteen pages a week, and has just one full-time employee and two part-time employees. Unfortunately, because the Farm News is a print-only publication that’s distributed exclusively to bureau members, it’s likely that the paper mostly preaches to the choir. Although we have discussed ways to get some of what we publish on the farm bureau’s website, that hasn’t happened.

One can imagine a future in which the Farm News expands its online presence to compensate for reduced agriculture coverage across the region. Nonprofit organizations in other places have hired reporters and bloggers to cover specialty issues that might otherwise be ignored.

We’d need a larger staff to make it happen, though, and since Modesto Junior College has eliminated its journalism program, it may be harder to find qualified young hires. In the past, the Farm News has found reporting interns at the junior college. There’s no shortage of bright students who have shown an interest in farm bureau internships, but experience has shown that they need good classroom training to succeed at the job. While the junior college has a nationally acclaimed agriculture program, the pool of knowledgeable student writers looks thin.

That said, there is perhaps room for others to pick up the slack. Over the last few years, social networking has spawned a new way for those in the ag industry to get their news and, in a way, act as citizen journalists. Organizations like the AgChat Foundation use Twitter and Facebook to engage farmers nationwide in daily conversations about the issues affecting agriculture, and empower those farmers to connect with their communities. Most of the people participating in these forums aren’t trained journalists, but they can certainly play a role in raising and maintaining public awareness of key agricultural issues, and bringing those issues to the attention of journalists who can turn them into stories.

The future of where and how we’ll continue to obtain our news is, obviously, uncertain. But it’s probable that specialty news will come from a variety of small, expert sources, rather than from one major outlet. I believe farmers and ranchers in and around Modesto will continue to be proactive in sharing their knowledge and insight with the public. I also believe the old-time farmer mindset is shifting to a more modern way of thinking. They really don’t have any other choice.

This piece is part of CJR’s Nov/Dec 2011 roundtable discussion of the future of news in Modesto, California, and places like it. For more on the topic, click here.

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Kristin Platts is the editor of the Stanislaus County Farm News, in Modesto, California.