Newsrooms tackling agriculture: Start with inventory and build

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You're the editor of a small-town paper in a community covered by sprouting corn fields, or majestically wrapped in wind-blown wheat.

You know agriculture plays an important part in shaping the economics of your region, but how do you get at the heart of it?

Al Cross, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism, offered practical solutions during a recent installment of the GateHouse Professional Development Series, explaining that the best way to develop a coverage plan is to start from square one.

"Before you can figure out what to cover, you need to know what you have," Cross said in a presentation entitled "Rural Journalism: Tackling Agriculture."

He added that a smart and logical starting point is the USDA's Census of Agriculture, which offers a thorough snapshot as deep as the county level.

So, Cross used an example of Arkansas County, Arkansas – with Stuttgart, its largest city – to illustrate what type of data can easily be accessed.

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In this table, you can see that the number of farms had decreased between 2007 and 2012 while the average size of the county's farms increased. And the market value of products sold has shot up, largely due to what had been an increase in crop prices that has since leveled off, Cross said. This table also shows that government payments have been on the rise.

But this is just the surface. A deeper dive into the numbers reveals specifics about the types of crops or livestock that drives the economy of each county. Again, using Arkansas County as an example, the numbers from the website reveal just how important agriculture is to this region.

In this table, you can see that out of the nation's more than 3,000 counties, Arkansas County ranks fourth when it comes to rice farming by acreage. It's also the state's top county in terms of dollar sales for grains, oilseeds, dry beans and dry peas.

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How can this info help? It offers newsroom leaders a starting point to coordinate coverage. What makes this region so successful for these crops? What climate conditions will affect these numbers?

Now that you know what's being produced, how can you dig into the local names and faces behind the farms?

Cross explained that the Environmental Working Group maintains a Farm Subsidy Database that allows you to look up the specific federal payments by city and ZIP code, and for payments to specific local farmers.

This is simply a starting point, one that gives you some names to work with. But from there?

  • Find the person at your local cooperative extension, and reach out. They're likely to know plenty about the area's biggest farm groups and can steer you in the right direction when it comes to understanding trends and seeing what's next.
  • Cross added that the USDA's Economic Research Service has a wealth of data and maps on rural U.S., some of it agricultural; for example, here's a map from the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America of parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, showing ranges of federal farm payments per farm operator.

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Looking for more about rural journalism? Check out the Rural Blog for more story ideas.

Tim Schmitt, project manager with GateHouse Media, has spent decades in various newsrooms – some print and some broadcast. He was a sports reporter, news reporter and then managing editor of his hometown paper, the Tonawanda (N.Y.) News, where he led an award-winning editorial page. He's worked as an editor, staffer or longtime contributor with the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, the Mesa Tribune, the Arizona Republic, the alt-weekly Buffalo Current and the Niagara Falls Gazette, where he was executive sports editor over four dailies – spearheading coverage of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres. He also worked as a weekend anchor and reporter at Buffalo's ABC-TV affiliate, WKBW, and was the news director of WLVL-AM in the Buffalo market, where he hosted a daily two-hour talk show covering local politics and current events. He moved to Austin to join GateHouse in early 2015.

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