Going hungry: Canadians are starving for agriculture coverage

If food is the world’s most essential industry, why have newspapers forsaken the farm?

Marilee Devries
Spring, 2014 | Comments (1) - Report an Error

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Laura Rance wants agriculture to be a beat at the Winnipeg Free Press—and she wants to be the reporter on it. She grew up on a farm, so she can see that coverage is lacking. It’s the mid-’80s, and Rance has been a general-assignment reporter for two-and-a-half years. She decides to lobby for the beat. 

“Why would you want to do that?” Mike Ward, then assistant city editor, wonders when she broaches the subject in the newsroom. “You’re good enough,” Rance recalls him saying. “You could be working city hall or the legislature. Why do you want to cover agriculture?”

The perception was that devoting a reporter to farm coverage was a waste of resources—yet the subject runs the gamut of journalistic topics, from politics to science to human interest to the world’s most essential industry: food. Today, agriculture isn’t just a beat for Rance. She’s the editor of the Manitoba Co-operator, a weekly newspaper that reports on production, marketing and policy news for crop and livestock producers. And although she never became the agricultural reporter for the Free Press, Rance now writes a Saturday column for the paper called Rural Revival, her way of making agriculture accessible to people outside the farming community. She tries to explain exactly what farmers do and what issues they face.

Covering agriculture effectively isn’t easy—the industry is technically and scientifically complex—and niche publications such as the Co-operator fill farmers’ demands for industry-related news. But there’s another need that remains unfilled: agriculture plays an essential role in Canada’s economy and provides a basic human necessity, yet most people living in cities are unaware of how their food gets from the farm to their plates. 

By allotting few resources and little space to agriculture, newspapers contribute to this ignorance. While it’s true that locally grown foo has found a place in urban news thanks to the locavore diet trend, when Canadians read about what goes into the non-local food on their plates, what they read is often a distortion due to sensational reporting that focuses on genetically modified foods and battery cages. It’s a matter of urban journalists covering agriculture badly—but it’s also a matter of big-city reporters not covering agriculture enough. 

***

It doesn’t start with the seed. A machine called a cultivator, pulled by a tractor, penetrates the dirt and loosens it. The packed, hard surface ground turns into rich, loose soil, ready for planting a field of wheat.

This process has been a part of my life in a more intimate way than it has been for most Canadians. I grew up on a small dairy and cash crop operation an hour southwest of Ottawa. My involvement in the farm was not much more than picking stones in the spring (I walked up and down the length of a newly planted field alongside a tractor and a dump trailer, picking up rocks that could otherwise bust the machinery) and heaving hay bales onto an elevator that carried them up into our barn’s haymow, where they’re stored. Every fall, my bedroom smelled like the manure my dad spread on the fields. Our Holstein cattle would sometimes break through the electric fences bordering their grazing fields—at least once but more likely five or six times a year—and we’d have to run out and chase them back. Although I’m a country transplant living in the big city, my connection to agriculture remains strong. 

My father is one of about 294,000 farm operators in the country. But the industry, known as “Ag,” is much larger—so it’s hard to comprehend how infrequently we think of it. In 2011, Canada exported $40.3 billion in agriculture and agri-food products worldwide. In Saskatchewan alone, farmers seed approximately 33 million acres of land annually. Last year, Canadian crop producers grew a record 95.5 million tonnes of grain. “Farmers are bigger, and they’re making more money, so it’s become kind of a sexy industry again,” Joanne Paulson, editor of The Western Producer, tells me. Then she laughs and says, “Maybe I shouldn’t say ‘again.’”

The Producer has a few nicknames. One of them is “The Bible.” For 90 years the weekly paper, based in Saskatoon, has reported on agriculture. There are at least 50 farm publications like it across the country, and they all thrive on bringing rural and agricultural coverage to those directly connected to the industry. But here’s the thing: we’re all still connected to the farm. Rural news is not of broad public interest, so it can stay local. But Ag is different—it contributes to the daily life of all Canadians.

You wouldn’t think so, though, based on the amount of coverage urban dailies give the subject. Three decades ago, Regina’s Leader-Post had two agriculture reporters covering the beat in Saskatchewan, a province that accounts for nearly half the arable land in Canada. By 1997, it was down to one: Lisa Schmidt. Ten years later, Angela Hall, the paper’s last agriculture reporter, left the beat and was never replaced. 

Now Bruce Johnstone covers agriculture stories as part of his role as business editor. “I’m basically the last man standing when it comes to Ag stories,” he says. “We try to do as much as we can, but it’s certainly far less than we should be doing.” Ric Swihart, who was the Lethbridge Herald’s agriculture reporter and editor for nearly all of the 41 years he spent there, retired in 2011. His employer refilled his position briefly, but the beat has since been melded with general-assignment reporting. At Ontario dailies, agriculture reporters are extremely rare.

Although The Globe and Mail axed its food and agriculture reporter position from its Report on Business section back in 1993, the paper’s first-ever global food reporter, Jessica Leeder, began her short-lived beat in 2009. Leeder wrote about the social, political, economic, scientific and environmental factors that influence what Canadians eat. A 2011 piece called “Bare shelves in Canada’s breadbasket” shows how far removed her work was from restaurant reviews: “The heart of Canada’s breadbasket, though, is becoming the country’s most unfortunate place to be a foodie: In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, two of the nation’s most agriculturally oriented provinces, reams of requests for new farm markets are being turned down, and some markets regularly have dozens of empty stalls despite the crowds they draw.” The reason, she wrote, is simple: “There aren’t enough farmers to go around.” 

In late 2011, when Leeder went on maternity leave, the paper abandoned the beat. Now the Globe, like many of its rivals, often opts for wire copy to cover agriculture-related news.

In 1917, when The Canadian Press was created, agriculture received as much coverage as anything else. Today, Ag reporting is more sporadic. “Our average reader just isn’t interested in routine farm news,” says western bureau chief Heather Boyd. CP has changed over the years, she says, and so has agriculture. For that matter, so has Canada—increasing urbanization has put distance between people and the farm. “That doesn’t mean we ignore agriculture,” Boyd says. But the news service looks at it almost purely from the consumer angle. “Is it going to pull on their purse strings or affect their health?”

As consumer interest in food grows, coverage of food grows too. Lost along the way is reporting on agriculture. Still, some large papers, particularly in the Prairies, do make an effort. Manitoba’s Brandon Sun has an agriculture section on its website, although most of the content is taken from the wires. Similarly, the Free Press’s online Ag section is mostly made up of CP articles, and its print edition features Rance’s columns. Editor Paul Samyn regrets that the paper doesn’t do as much as it did 40 or 50 years ago, but echoes Boyd that the dwindling coverage goes hand in hand with a Manitoba that is increasingly removed from the farm. “It used to be that everyone’s grandparents were on the farm, or maybe an aunt or uncle. Not anymore,” he says. “That connection has been lost. 

***

Many farmers spray wheat for fusarium head blight, a fungal disease of small grain cereals. FHB used to be a problem mainly in Eastern Canada, but now western producers are dealing with the disease. Kernels scabbed by FHB are called tombstone kernels because of their chalky, lifeless appearance. The disease doesn’t affect the whole field, but it causes a yield reduction and lowers the grade quality of the crop.

The quality of agriculture reporting in the urban press is like a wheat crop infected with FHB. In November 2013, academic journal Food and Chemical Toxicology retracted a widely publicized French study it had published a year earlier. The study linked Monsanto’s genetically modified corn, developed to withstand being sprayed with its Roundup herbicide, to tumours in rats. The research stated that in some groups on diets containing the genetically modified corn, up to 50 percent of male rats and 70 percent of female rats died. But a year-long investigation showed the study’s findings were inconclusive: the species of rat used already had a known high incidence of tumours, and the sample size was too small. 

The retraction, however, came only after major news outlets picked up the report’s explosive findings. The Daily Mail, for example, ran shocking images of rats disfigured by tumours, and this headline: “Cancer row over GM foods as study says it did THIS to rats…and can cause organ damage and early death in humans.” French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that if the study’s results were confirmed, he would press for a European Union ban on the corn. Russia suspended imports of it, while Kenya banned all genetically modified crops. Although news reports mentioned the study’s numerous critics, some did so only as an aside.

This is an example of the knee-jerk reaction agriculture-related stories often get. “We see some poor journalism in mainstream media around Ag issues because they don’t get the complexity,” says Tamara Leigh, past president of the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation. Paul Mahon thinks that’s true, but says it’s not intentional. The publisher and editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Ontario Farmer thinks the beat is exclusive by nature. “It’s so technical and insular that we probably marginalize ourselves.”

For that reason, general-assignment reporters face a double challenge when covering Ag: they know little, and their readers know even less. Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran occasionally writes farm business columns for an urban audience. “All of these people are consumers of agricultural products in one way or another,” he says, but they may be ignorant of the economics, the business practices, the laws and the regulations. “It becomes much more difficult to write for them.”

Some believe that it would be easier, and agriculture would be covered more effectively, if the beat were limited to writers with a farming background. Better Farming’s managing editor, Robert Irwin, thinks there’s a huge advantage to having that knowledge, particularly when writing for an Ag publication. “You may have won a Pulitzer, but if you aren’t speaking the cultural language of agriculture, our readers won’t appreciate you,” Irwin says. He’s been working in the field since the mid-’70s and has been farming even longer. Mahon, on the other hand, doesn’t think a farming background is necessary: “It can be done by anyone. They just need experience.”

Experience would help writers understand that some crop farmers spoon-feed nutrients to their corn; that dairy cows with visible hip bones aren’t starving (they are large, but lean, animals, and excess fat causes health problems); that the giant marshmallows scattered across farmers’ fields in early fall are actually round hay bales wrapped in plastic, preserved for feeding livestock in the winter.

A journalist writing about farming needs to understand organic produce from the perspective of a grower, not an arts major on a locavore diet who sees non-organics as pesticide factories. But as with any beat, all of this can be learned—and it needs to be learned. 

The Producer’s managing editor, Michael Raine, says journalists too often give credence to pseudo-science and opponents of certain farm practices at the expense of scientists, agronomists and farmers. In April 2013, Carey Gillam of Reuters reported on a study that claimed glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, used by farmers worldwide, could be linked to infertility, cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Scary stuff? Yes. Accurate? The jury is still out. 

While some studies highlight concerns about glyphosate, others have concluded that, when used properly, glyphosate is safe. Given the frightening ramifications of Gillam’s reporting, she should have at least mentioned the contradicting research. In a blog post, Paul Raeburn, chief media critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Gillam’s reporting “dropped bombshells . . . into the public discourse.” 

***

A farmer plants wheat with a machine called a grain drill, which is pulled by a tractor. A metering device, usually a spoon or a fluted roll, passes the seed through a tube to a disc opener. The disc cuts the soil and drops about 1.5 million seeds, smaller than Rice Krispies, per acre.

Tom Button, editor of the national Ag magazine Country Guide, is in his home office in Ridgetown, Ontario, when the phone rings. On the other end is one of his freelancers, who’s also a farmer: “Tom, what do you want me to write for you?”

“What did you talk about at the supper table last night?” Button asks.

This kind of question leads to the stories he and his staff at Country Guide think are where the real energy in agriculture is right now: the individual farmer. Or, more specifically, the individual business decisions a farmer makes on his or her farm. Country Guide is one of the few Canadian farm publications focused primarily on business, rather than production processes and innovations. 

More typical is Ontario Dairy Farmer. In the September 2013 issue, the Health section was devoted to “Lead toxicity in cattle,” and reporter Ian Cumming wrote an article entitled “The useless two months,” arguing there is no reason not to calve heifers at 22 months instead of waiting the usual 24. Meanwhile, Manure Manager comes out six times a year and is all about manure handling and how to make it lucrative. There are also magazines dedicated to fruit and vegetable farming; poultry, pork and beef farmers; milk producers; and horse owners.

But stories in Country Guide are not as foreign and disconnected from an average Canadian business standpoint as the publication’s niche status might imply. After all, farmers are CEOs in their own right, whether their operations are big or small. Button says, “I think farmers are more sophisticated than a lot of people give them credit for.”

***

The waiting game begins about a month before harvest. After spraying for fungi, a wheat grower must watch for the crop to ripen from a deep green to a golden yellow. There’s not much else to do before combining the field. 

When trade publications tell Ag’s story, they’re preaching to the converted. Those who read the Producer or Better Farming or Ontario Hog Farmer are already immersed in agriculture. Most Canadians don’t need to know how using brown midrib corn hybrids will affect forage rations for a herd of cattle—but they would benefit from knowing more about why antibiotics may be used on that herd of cattle, because eventually, those cattle could become their food. 

Issues like antibiotic use on farms often make it into the public eye via social media movements and blogs. This is a problem, according to Paulson. “A lot of this is anti-farming, but no one has applied the scientific lens to it, or even the factual lens. We’re in a pitched battle against that information.” 

Tension between attitude and knowledge is common in agricultural coverage. Paulson thinks there’s an imbalance in how food production is viewed. “For example,” she says, “everybody freaks out because cows are given antibiotics sometimes. Well, do you want your cow to get sick and die?” Paulson throws up her hands. “It’s just like us: we need antibiotics.” 

Although a farmer can’t sell a cow for meat until the drug residue left in its tissue is low enough to meet government standards, Paulson says most people don’t know that. “They’re like, ‘Ah! They’re giving hormones and antibiotics, and I’m going to eat it!’”

The October 31, 2013, issue of the Producer featured an editorial about animal abuse on farms. It cited a recent episode of CTV’s W5 that included hidden camera footage captured at an Alberta egg and chicken operation. The footage showed chickens living in deplorable conditions, crammed into battery cages with dead birds lying nearby. W5 obtained the footage from an animal rights group called Mercy for Animals Canada. The editorial discusses the need for transparency in the agricultural industry but argues there are many examples of large Canadian operations supplying the country’s demand for eggs while maintaining the health of chickens. “Unfortunately it only takes one idiotic action to reduce confidence in the entire process.” 

Animal cruelty tends to attract a lot of attention. The Globe, CBC and other news outlets ran pieces on the story. This is one of the struggles the agriculture industry faces: widespread coverage of a sensational farm-related issue, and then nothing until the next hidden-camera video or biotechnology scare. It’s also a battle Canadian journalism is embroiled in. When these sensational issues are the only farm stories published, readers receive a distorted take on agriculture.

***

A farmer harvests wheat with a combine and takes it to a grain elevator, where it’s graded and stored until being delivered to a mill. The paycheque, based on the grade of the crop, comes after delivery. Grade five is the worst; grade two is the best, as near to a perfect crop as possible. Eventually, the wheat ends up in flour bags. But few people understand the process, which starts in a cultivated field and ends on the dinner plate.

It’s easy to feel disconnected. Eighty-one percent of Canadians live in urban areas these days—I’m one of them now. The earthy smell that is always in the air, the constant rumble of tractors all summer night long, dinnertime conversations about which cow needs to be treated with Cefa-Lak for mastitis—it’s a different world to me when I’m surrounded by skyscrapers, sirens, and Starbucks. 

With a growing movement among city-dwellers to become more connected to their food, farming is increasingly cropping up in urban journalism. Trendy locavore coverage appears regularly in papers across the country. All Sun Media publications get their taste of the beat through national food editor Rita DeMontis, who has held the position for about 10 years. While it doesn’t capture the full picture of agriculture, at least this food-related coverage is a start: it’s bringing the realities of food production closer to consumers who once took the finished product for granted. “Do they know a lot about how food’s produced?” asks Button. “No. But food-related coverage has come a long way.”

Maybe the answer is consumer-focused agriculture brands such as Modern Farmer, a daily website and quarterly magazine that launched in April 2013 out of Hudson, New York. Founder and editor-in-chief Ann Marie Gardner started the magazine because she’s convinced agriculture has more to do with everyone’s lives than traditional news coverage would lead us to believe. “It taps into so many areas of our lives,” Gardner says. “But it was not being covered in a way that was interesting or appealing.”

No one on her editorial team is a farmer, but she says they all recognize the increasing importance of global agriculture issues. They think of their readers as “thoughtful consumers,” from the farmer to the armchair farmer. “Everyone wants their information in a way that maybe allows you to dream and inspires you,” Gardner says. “I think that’s what’s been missing in some agricultural coverage.”

While it has no counterparts north of the border, Modern Farmer represents, fittingly, a modern approach. Now Canadian journalists must find a way to tell the Ag story, because it’s more than nice-to-know information. It’s the story of something whole country—and the whole world—needs: food.

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COMMENTS (1)
Liz Dragstra
Just read this. Excellent insight and well written.
Posted on 08/02/2014
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