The Transition of Agricultural Reporting

As newspaper conglomerates downsize because of a struggling print-news industry, there are fewer and fewer reporters with agricultural beats. Agriculture stories represent less media coverage with the advent of a computer-centric society, coupled with a population that is less interested in “hard news” and more interested in “infotainment.”

An increase in general-assignment reporters is being witnessed as print publications strive to appeal to a broader audience to remain in business. These reporters are assigned the occasional farm story from their editors, but do not actively pursue industry news. Some believe this has led to decreased quality in agriculture reporting and the emergence of industry-serving publications.

The significance of agricultural news, however, is stronger than ever.

“In today's complex world of genetically modified food, stem-cell therapies and global climate change, the need for journalists who can understand and communicate the intricacies and impact of science on society has never been greater,” states the University of Missouri’s agricultural journalism program home page.

Ag industry news is still being delivered to the public – but the format has changed. As newspapers downsize, farm journalists are taking the heat.

“There seems little doubt that cost-cutting and layoffs – the “bottom line” mentality – and the decision to cut or consolidate beats, have affected farm coverage,” states Thomas Pawlick in his book, The Invisible Farm: The Worldwide Decline of Farm News and Agricultural Journalism Training.

As a result of the shrinking agricultural focus in newsprint, more and more farm reporters are appearing on the Internet.

Farm news-specific sites are continually being produced such as, Agriculture Business Week, and AgClips. “Agriblogging” and industry podcasting are becoming increasingly popular.

"There are now literally hundreds of blogs relating to agriculture," said Chuck Zimmerman, president of ZimmComm New Media, a company specializing in agricultural and biofuels-related blogging and podcasting.

Several industry blogs exist, such as Agriculture Blog, which highlight emerging news and prevalent subject matter. Podcasts are also delivering ag news. AgriFeeds, an agriculture news and events aggregator, allows users to filter and subscribe to industry-related podcasts. Farmers, media and the general public utilize agricultural blogs and podcasts as educational resources for industry updates.

The 11th-Annual Agricultural Media Summit is Aug. 1 through Aug. 5. According to its Web site, it aims to promote, support and enhance the viability of ag media as an effective and efficient communications medium. The summit will provide education, networking and professional-development opportunities to those working within the ag-media industry. The summit is an example of the farming industry’s effort to reassert itself as a principal topic of media coverage.

The decline of traditional agricultural journalism is evident. Agriculture’s Internet presence is intense as dailies scale back and staff fewer and fewer agriculture reporters. The cultural and societal significance of the agriculture industry will secure its existence in the media forefront – in a new format. There are advantages and disadvantages to this shift that make it a hotly contested topic among those in the industry.

Double Cropping – Cropping Up This Planting Season

In an age of agricultural innovations, a traditional, tried-and-true farming method holds its own. Double cropping is a widely used polyculture practice among farmers to maximize profit and acreage.

Double cropping can mean double dividends for farmers. To leverage land, farmers practice double cropping – the consecutive production of commodities in the same field within the same year. A renewed interest in a conventional strategy is being witnessed because of America’s healthy commodity-crop market.

“If properly managed, double cropping can allow a grower to produce a second crop with a short turn-around time and minimal inputs compared to the first crop. Double cropping thus allows a grower to increase efficiency by making multiple uses of production inputs,” said George Hochmuth, associate dean for research at the University of Florida.

Planting one crop after directly harvesting another crop has multiple advantages:
• Increased yields: Profits are maximized when producers’ yield for one field is twofold.
• Land-use efficiency: Optimizing field-use demonstrates sustainable agriculture.
• Resistance to erosion: Occupied fields keep soil compact to reduce soil loss and runoff into water systems.
• Resistance to disease/pest cycles: Continually altering crops in a field promotes resistance to crop-specific ailments as lingering crops can develop immunity throughout time.

The name of the game is preparation and management. Many factors complicate the practice. Time management is essential. Growing seasons are limited and farmers need to be cognizant of crop-specific time and weather constraints. Secondly, crops need to be compatible with each other when subsequently planting.

“Double cropping soybeans after wheat becomes quite competitive economically with other cropping practices,” said Dr. Keith Smith, Ohio State University horticulture and crop-science professor, “In fields where soybean diseases are a major problem, double-cropping soybeans will make those problems worse and should not be attempted.”

Problems can also arise with fertilizer and pesticide residue, as well as crop residue such as wheat stubble. If these considerations aren’t accounted for, farmers can lose money and may experience reduced pest and disease management.

Corn, wheat and soybeans are the most common double crop choices in the U.S. The typical pattern is winter wheat following either soybeans or corn, though it is important to note that double cropping isn’t exclusive to grain. Emerging double crops include canola and cotton. Crop selection varies regarding a farm’s climate conditions.

Researchers are experimenting with new double-crop patterns to make the most of time, farmland and producer costs. Double cropping is appearing in new agricultural sectors such as the raspberry and sunflower seed industries. New seed varieties are also being developed that require shorter growing seasons to improve yield potential.

Double cropping is resourceful. It can be economical and ecological for both the agriculture industry and consumers. Farmers across the nation practice double cropping to make the most of their investments in a lean economy, while consumers can rely and feel good about an abundant, dependable, affordable food supply that is created without additional environmental effects.

With planting season on the horizon, farmers will be double cropping to capitalize their time and monetary investments. Double cropping will expand with equipment and biotechnology innovations and demand an even greater presence in the agriculture industry.

What other customary farming techniques are as widely implemented and as effective as double cropping? What crops should researchers experiment with? In what other ways can farmers optimize their land?

Agriculture: Assisting the Economy

America is a nation of opportunity for businesses big and small, despite our economy’s current challenges. The country’s economic state dictates a business’ vitality and lifespan, but even in financial difficulty, one industry has always persevered – agriculture.

Historically, agriculture has been a consistent job provider in society because of food necessity. This fundamental principle has made the industry indispensable to our economy, as discussed in one of my earlier blogs. In the 1800s, nearly 80 percent of the population was involved in farming. Wartime food production added to workforce numbers and the industry’s significance in the 1930s. National and global market demands keep the industry afloat today.

"It's a bright spot in the economy," said Standard & Poor's equity analyst Adrian Compton.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Chief Economist, Joseph Glauber, forecasts 2009 returns to be the second highest on record, farm income to be above its 10-year average and farm debt at an all-time low.

“We attribute the high level of expected farm income to strong crop receipts; reflecting higher crop prices, increased international demand and support from government payments," said Compton.

These factors have notably affected America’s financial system by funneling jobs and money into the market.

Farm Economy Statistics

• Figures released in 2005 from the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) indicate that farm and farm-related employment are responsible for providing income to 167,001,363 individuals in the U.S.
• One of every five U.S. jobs is associated with the ag industry (Macoupin County Agricultural Literacy Program - MCALP).
• Forty-eight thousand industry jobs are created each year (MCALP).
• The industry channeled $140 billion to the economy in 2008 in the form of net income to producers from crop and livestock production, farm services performed and payouts of wages to workers, rents to landlords and interest to lenders, with similar projections for 2009 (Kiplinger Agriculture Letter).
• Farm producers rank first on Sageworks’ “Top Performing Industries by Sales Growth” within the past 12 months.

The industry boasted impressive gains in 2008 with similar projections for 2009.

"It is expected that 2009 will be another good year for the farm economy," ERS stated in its 2009 Farm Sector Income Forecast, "bolstered by strong demand for feed crops, oilseeds and food grains."

Because the agriculture industry relies on multiple participants for it to function, a variety of employment opportunities exist (more than 200 job types according to MCALP), contributing to its growth and dependability as both a part-time job and career source. Those working within the industry can be either salaried or self-employed. Industry-related jobs run the gamut from machinery suppliers, to plant operators to farmhands and involve farm production and processing, whole and retail trade and farm management and education.

Farming is not a cure-all, however, for those experiencing financial straits. Overproduction, fluctuating prices, variable weather and costly applications, among other factors, complicate the industry, which jeopardize sales and profit. The industry is kept in check by federal subsidies.

Agriculture’s presence will perpetually remain in the economic forefront as a commodity industry. Working in unison, American farmers, farm-related businesses and the government will determine the health and longevity of the industry as an employer.

How can other sectors of the U.S. economy learn from agriculture? What other industries are as far reaching as farming?

Technology in Agriculture

Long gone are the days of the horse-drawn plow and scythe. Farmers today are utilizing an array of modern technologies that have advanced the agricultural industry to an unanticipated state.

In 1830, 300 hours of manual labor were required to produce just five acres of wheat. Today, the same yield is produced in less than two hours (

Agricultural progress is the direct result of the innovation of the farming industry as well as federal research and the implementation of federal policies.

Chemically enhanced fertilizers, genetically altered seed and disease-and-weather resistant crops are a few of the principal technologies that advanced the industry. Now, the focus is about equipment and comes in the form of satellite-information technologies that have revolutionized farming accuracy and precision.

Gossip-worthy gadgets:
• Autonomous tractors: Though still a concept for the future, more engineering companies are developing driverless tractors that will farm using computers and cameras. “Autonomous tractors — ones that operate without a human in the loop — are definitely what we’re all trying to do. It’s the next great frontier for the ag equipment market,” said Aaron Senneff, manager of hardware and systems engineering for John Deere. Selling points include saved time and opportunities for farmers with disabilities.
• Auto steering: A precursor to autonomous tractors, auto steering is the hands-free navigation of farm equipment using satellite technology, although a farmer is still needed in the hot seat to initially start the process. Auto steering greatly reduces overlapping. Other advantages can be viewed in this YouTube video.
• Fleet-management technology: Instead of using cell phones to call farm partners for status updates and whereabouts, more and more farmers are using software similar to what is used in the trucking industry to do their busywork. Not only do systems provide vehicle locations, but they can also monitor vehicle speeds and machinery information such as engine temperature and fluid levels. Some systems boast “immediate service response” capability similar to GM’s On Star.
• Internet in the cab: USB, WiFi adapters in tractor and combine cabs allow farmers to send e-mails, order parts and access market news and weather updates while simultaneously prepping, planting or harvesting. The cab literally becomes “an office on wheels.”
• On-the-go sensing: GPS sensors log information such as soil condition, depth of tillage, number of seeds planted and product application levels for heightened efficiency which, “greatly increases the capacity for measuring the variability that is inherent in all agricultural fields,” said Bruce Erikson, Purdue ag economist.
• Vision-based side dressing: A sensor-equipped computer evaluates crop growth and assesses fertilizer needs based on conclusions – removing the guessing game for producers.

Many agricultural groups have realized a significant cost benefit from implementing some of these new technologies.

Technology has shaped the direction of American farming development. Conventional machinery and methods are being replaced with computers, sensors and GPS tools to till, spray, plant and plow. Farmers and consumers alike can be grateful for innovations that are more cost effective and have potential to produce greater, more dependable yields with less crop damage and manual labor.

But, not everyone thinks modern agriculture is ideal. It comes with a price tag, causing financial problems for some smaller farming operations that struggle to compete in a burgeoning industry. Critics assert that devices are replacing people and ousting the nostalgic family farm tradition. Others bring up environmental concerns in regards to overproduction and misuse of land because of technology’s ability for mass returns.

What are your thoughts about technology’s impact on American agriculture? What technologies have you witnessed being utilized in your farm community? What would the ultimate farming technology be?