Agriculture has always been a low-profile industry in the US. As a result, coverage of agri-business and farming has been a media category hit hard by editorial cutbacks over the past decade.
"The trend has been a reduction in the number of print and broadcast media that are agriculture-specific in their focus," notes Aaron Putze, executive director of the Coalition to Support Iowa Farmers. "Now, it's the reporters covering the environment beat or business beat that have assumed the agriculture beat."
That not only means fewer agriculture-themed stories, but also "when you have reporters used to covering other beats now looking at agriculture through their lens, it certainly changes how the issues are reported," Putze adds.
But thanks to several trends, most notably the rise in bio-fuels, such as corn-based ethanol, US agriculture is getting a boost that's also attracting more media interest.
"The whole bio-fuels industry has been such an important thing for farmers... and that's what a lot of people are writing about," explains Den Gardner, executive director of the American Agricultural Editors Association. "There's also more coverage [of the] world market for agriculture."
But outside of the fluctuations in commodity pricing, which is largely a short business-page item, most regular reporting on agriculture is being done by vertical publications like Progressive Farmer, Successful Farming, and Feedstuffs.
"We still do an awful lot of trade outreach," says Bob Bowman, Gibbs & Soell SVP and MD. "It's a shrinking universe in terms of numbers, but that's where we can deliver the technical communications on things like how to get better yields out of an acre."
The number of radio and TV farm reports has also declined. But Bill O'Neill, executive director of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, says the numbers are starting to stabilize. "More stations and networks are now concentrating more on analysis that can add value," he notes. This opens up opportunities for PR pros to position clients as experts.
Colleen Church McDowall, VP and PR director at St. Louis-based Osborn & Barr Communications, says there's also an emerging fascination with the growing number of people moving to rural areas and taking up farming as a hobby.
"We've seen a real growth in media outlets covering rural lifestyle," says McDowall, whose firm represents John Deere. "They want more how-to stories and solutions, which can provide educational opportunities for our clients to connect with customers."
New reporters now covering agriculture as their secondary beat are looking to quickly get up to speed on the issues, so setting up media days or roundtables with farmers is a way to position your client as an information resource
Pitch rural lifestyle stories as a way to get agriculture off the business page
Alternative fuels, such as corn-based ethanol, are going to be a huge story going forward, so the opportunities for agricultural-themed pitches are bound to increase