Farm news remains important to consumers

June 5, 2012

By Al Cross

Agriculture news should continue to be a staple for rural newspapers, even though only a small minority of rural Americans farm for a living, because agribusinesses are so important to the economy in rural areas—and because farming increasingly includes connections to local food systems.
Consumers’ increasing demand for local food, and increasing competition among farmers, has helped double the number of farmers’ markets since the middle of the last decade, making the markets a $1 billion industry, Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported last month, in a story that we excerpted on The Rural Blog at http://irjci.blogspot.com. The individual item is at http://tinyurl.com/7afgrjo.
There are good stories in the people who buy and sell at farmers’ markets, and who engage in community-supported agriculture, in which farmers contract with consumers to supply food directly. But in writing about the local-food movement, how do we define local? The range can be as much as 250 miles, but a more common definition is 100 miles, or within the boundaries of the same state. The Associated Press examined the question, and our blog item on it is at tinyurl.com/83ulkjh.
Many commercial growers of fruits, vegetables and other crops use migrant labor, and they are complaining about excessive paperwork and delays in the H-2A visa program that allows migrant workers to enter the country legally. The Kansas City Star wrote about it, and we excerpted the story at tinyurl.com/chm83uq.
One of the big stories on the farm front in recent months was the Obama administration’s effort, recently abandoned, to ban children under 16 from using farm equipment, and those under 18 from working in feedlots, grain bins and stockyards. The rules would have exempted children working on family farms owned and operated by their parents, but that would not have applied to farm-ownership structures that cross generations in families. The plan would have formalized a policy adopted in the Bush administration a decade ago, but it became a political football and the administration abandoned it. Republicans are likely to keep using the issue as the election nears; for the facts and background see our blog item at tinyurl.com/6r952gl.

Cover the presidential race
Community newspapers should pay attention to the presidential race, and here’s why: If dailies rely on AP, the coverage won’t be localized. If weeklies just stick to local news, they will ignore a major topic of discussion among their readers—who, in the dozen or so swing states, can provide the margin of victory or defeat. And covering the race can help a newspaper maintain and build its brand as the most authoritative local source of news and information.
To help smaller papers cover the big race, the Iowa Newspaper Foundation and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association will host a one-hour webinar on June 22. In it, I will discuss how to identify federal issues that affect your community and where to get reliable information and candidates’ positions; how to localize the race with reporting on campaign contributions and political activity; how to keep misleading ads from controlling the conversation; and how to exercise leadership on your editorial page. Our blog item about the webinar is at tinyurl.com/6vxwrrr.

Rural issues abound
If your community depends on a relatively small airport for passenger service, as many do, that service has probably deteriorated and may have even disappeared in the last few years. The country’s smallest airports lost 19 percent of their nonstop capacity from 2006 to 2011, while the largest airports lost only 4 percent, The New York Times reported. The smallest airports also showed bigger increases in fares. The changes have made flying a more complicated proposition, and there’s probably a local story in that: Where do your readers catch planes? Is that changing? Our blog item is at tinyurl.com/6vnvzkl.
Efforts to extend broadband service to rural areas got another boost last month with creation of a new federal fund for it, which we reported at tinyurl.com/7ecthof. One telecommunications company in North Dakota has the nation’s first all-fiber-optic network, according to Dakotafire, a reporting collaborative of newspapers covering seven counties in North Dakota and 14 in South Dakota. Our item on the network and Dakotafire is at tinyurl.com/7zkyeus.
Dollar General Stores, a familiar retailer in rural America, is branching out and selling fresh produce and refrigerated products in midsize “market stores.” Our item is at tinyurl.com/c3cf9cn.
The latest census shows that rural areas and small towns have more than their share of military veterans. Our blog item, based on research in the Daily Yonder, is at tinyurl.com/6q93abl.
 Veterans comprise a significant part of America’s homeless population, and the homeless in rural areas can face more challenges than those in urban areas. The radio station at Murray State University looked at the problem in Western Kentucky, and its reporting could guide yours. Our item is at tinyurl.com/6wkp66n.

Good work
The Rural Blog likes to trumpet the victories of rural news media. We noted at tinyurl.com/7znt6el that a new weekly paper in western North Carolina had won a Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism for its battles against local corruption, and we took note of the “60 Minutes” story about two rural journalists in southeastern Kentucky who took down a corrupt sheriff, at tinyurl.com/cc8vcoj.
CBS did that story because we gave Samantha Swindler the Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism. If you do or see good work that deserves national notice or could help other rural journalists, by appearing on The Rural Blog, please tell us about it by e-mailing me at al.cross@uky.edu. © Al Cross 2012

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, with partners at 28 universities in 18 states. See www.RuralJournalism.org.

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