Americans have grown unfamiliar with the issues facing today's farmer, and mainstream press is rare. David Ward explains the problems facing this PR field, and what can be done about them.Though they couldn't live without the productivity of the nation's farmers, a majority of Americans treat agriculture as an out-of-sight, out-of-mind issue. As a result, most media outlets devote only limited resources to covering farm-related issues, and in most cases it's with an outsider's understanding of what it takes to grow crops. "People used to have a fundamental understanding of agriculture," says Ivy Sprague, communications manager for the American Agricultural Economics Association. "They were farmers or they knew farmers, so they understood how agriculture worked. That knowledge isn't there anymore for the general public." It's not only that an increasingly urban and suburban population has difficulty relating to farming as both a business and a way of life. Modern agriculture is a far cry from the farming practiced by earlier generations of Americans. In addition to new technologies and strategies used to boost crop yields, there are issues involving genetically engineered produce, pesticides and other farm-related chemicals and, in many areas in the West, battles over water rights between farmers and nearby urban centers. Layered over all this is the complex government role in regulating the price of corn, wheat and other commodities by paying farmers not to plant fields. All this makes farming a difficult beat for metropolitan media outlets to grasp. As a result, many cover only portions of the agriculture picture, often with reporters who have cursory knowledge of the current issues related to farming. Who's familiar with farming? With the exception of a few Washington, DC-based journalists, most agricultural reporting is done by trade publications such as Successful Farmer and Farm Journal, radio stations in rural markets, and a relatively small number of Midwestern newspapers that have dedicated farm journalists. "Agricultural journalism is now a very, very small world," notes Sprague. Among the most respected agricultural journalists are The Wall Street Journal's Scott Killman, Elizabeth Becker of The New York Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune reporter Joy Powell, Lee Egerstrom of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, Thomas Lee of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Des Moines Register's Philip Brasher. But Laura Johnston, director of communications for the National Farmers Union, which represents more than 300,000 family farms, says agricultural issues do get their share of coverage, pointing out that this summer's drought and its impact on farming received ample space in newspapers, national TV and news magazines. "A lot of outlets covered the drought and its aftermath, including insect infestation," she says. "But most of the outlets that covered it didn't have a dedicated beat reporter." Jamie Greenheck, SVP/senior partner with Fleishman-Hillard's Food and Agribusiness practice, has a similar experience. "The fact that there are so few dedicated agricultural reporters means we end up talking with either the business reporter, the environmental reporter, or the technology reporter," he says. Cultivating good coverage The lack of knowledgeable reporters also means that PR professionals representing agricultural concerns have to take time to explain the ins and outs of modern agriculture. "This is an industry that is full of acronyms and jargon and technological developments," says Johnston. "So you need a lot of reporter education." "The issues around agriculture and farming have gotten so complex that's it difficult to communicate effectively through a simple release," adds Melissa Lackey, VP with The Standing Partnership, a St. Louis-based agency that represents the World Agricultural Forum. "Desk-side meetings become important because they provide that extra level of information, so that the reporters build a level of familiarity with the issues." Another strategy is to look for angles that resonate with the end consumer. "We try to pitch stories that involve food pricing or the environment, as well as the role family farms play in preserving rural communities," Johnston says. Ken Root, executive director of the Platte City, MO-based National Association of Farm Broadcasters (NAFB), differentiates between agricultural-themed stories for the general public and news aimed directly at farmers. The NAFB provides news for some 200 radio stations serving rural communities, primarily in the Midwest. The service combines continually updated reports on corn and other commodity prices, along with the latest news of new technologies, chemicals and trends in farming, Root says. Radio, along with the internet and to some extent television, still plays a major role in delivering information to sparsely populated farming regions. "The only area where farm broadcasting has truly lost out is in the high-population areas," Root says. "There used to be farm broadcasting on stations out of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, but they don't do it anymore because farmers are no longer a large part of their listening audience." Root's advice to PR professionals looking to reach farmers is to go through organizations such as the NAFB. "It may sound self-serving, but we have outlets in all of the farm broadcasters' newsrooms," he says. "If you send them out to the individual farm broadcasters yourself, they'll likely get thrown away." Piggyback with a breaking story Dan Lemke is communications director for the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI), which is dedicated to finding new uses for agricultural products. While he recently had success pitching stories on a new wheat-based cat litter to both the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, Lemke says agricultural-themed PR isn't getting any easier. "Rural, small-market radio and small-market newspapers are still interested and in tune with the issues since many of them are agriculturally dependent," he says. "But in major urban areas, they're not quite as likely to cover it because the number of readers that have a direct connection to agriculture is diminishing." Fleishman's Greenheck recommends trying to piggyback farm-themed pitches on breaking news stories. During the California energy crises, for example, Greenheck received coverage about a dairy farm that was able to turn cow manure into an energy source. "That ended up really supporting our environmentally friendly message we wanted to deliver about farmers," she says.
----------- Where to go Newspapers: Des Moines Register, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer-Press, Omaha World-Herald, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Congressional Daily Magazines: Time, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Midwest Living, Roll Call Vertical titles: Successful Farmer, Farm Journal, Agribusiness, Agweek, Missouri Ruralist, Small Farmer, Progressive Farmer, The Land Magazine, Farm & Ranch Guide TV & Radio: Ag Day (syndicated 5-7am television program), PBS, National Association of Farm Broadcasters, Brownfield Radio Network, NPR Internet: Farm.com, NAFB.com, www.farmandranchguide.com