On the outskirts of Winnipeg, stalks of golden prarie wheat rustle in the summer breeze, and dust blows between the stubble in the fields where fresh-cut sheaves stand like miniature teepees. Dozens of grain elevators along the horizon cast long, skinny shadows as the sun lowers in the western sky. In the city, a disturbance is brewing at the Manitoba Free Press. An argument over the amount of space given to farm news has erupted in editor John W. Dafoe’s office. The loud, angry voices cease when agricultural editor E. Cora Hind storms out. She raps on the door of another colleague. Reporter Lillian Beynon Thomas answers, and Hind enters, cheeks flushed and blue eyes flaming. “Wouldn’t you think that this paper would have a news side with some sense of news value, with some idea of the importance of agriculture?” she asks in frustration.
Hind posed this question nearly a century ago. While she demanded-and got-a good harvest of agricultural reportage for her paper, following generations of farm journalists have not been as successful. Now, more than 50 years after her death, Canada’s daily newspapers have turned their attention far afield from the kind of reporting that Hind saw as vital. During the past two decades, reporters have virtually stopped touring around the nation’s barnyards and tramping through the country’s corn fields. In fact, the number of agricultural editors at Canadian dailies has de-creased by 65 percent.
Today, Hind-Canada’s grandmother of agricultural journalism-is an unfamiliar ancestor to most citizens. She is remembered at Toronto’s Royal Agricultural Winter Fair, where her portrait hangs in the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame. There, her eyes are permanently fixed on the scene where, every year, farmers compete for top honours in crop and livestock-two things Hind knew more about than any other Canadian of her time. From 1901 until 1942, western farmers and business people counted on her to keep them up-to-date on agriculture happenings.
As commercial and agriculture editor of the Free Press, she was an advisor in the shaping of editorial policies, and the paper’s authority on all farming matters. She assembled a daily marketing page that outlined crop and cattle prices; wrote articles about livestock, grain and irrigation; reported on conventions; and visited experimental farms to find out about new breakthroughs. Hind’s ability to foretell in summer how many bushels of wheat the Canadian West would harvest in fall made her name famous worldwide. Every July and August, wearing her trademark buckskin jacket, Stetson hat, riding breeches, high-laced boots and khaki shirt, Hind toured Western Canada, scaling fences and trudging through wheat field after wheat field. She surveyed crops to judge their size, took heads of wheat and threshed them with her hands to see how the kernels were filling out, and examined the stalks for disease. She was extraordinarily accurate. In September 1909, Hind estimated that the wheat crop would yield 118,109,000 bushels. The actual tally came in at 18,119,000. Every fall, grain dealers wouldn’t budge, refusing to place or take any orders until the Free Press had published Hind’s annual crop estimate. (Before the Canadian Wheat Board was established in 1935, the government didn’t fix the price of wheat, and millions of dollars were at stake in the buying and selling of the country’s main export.)
In 1922, Hind traveled to Great Britain to investigate the marketing of Canadian agricultural produce. In 1932, when she was nearly 72, she spent a fortnight aboard the first cargo ship of prairie wheat to leave the port of Churchill, in order to see it to the markets of the world and report the story. Three years later, Hind-on her final assignment as commercial and agriculture editor of the Free Press-took a two-year trip around the world to gather news for the people of the prairies. She traveled through 27 wheat-producing countries, speaking to farmers, government officials, researchers and journalists to investigate their methods and compare their conditions, sending reports back to Free Press. When she dies at 81, Hind was still on staff as a general reporter-and halfway through writing an article.
Today, the tradition of agricultural reporting established by Hind is on its deathbed. I’ll reveal my bias up front: I’m concerned by this fact. My family’s bungalow, surrounded by fields of corn in ate summer, is in Peel County, Ontario-a region 80 kilometres from Grey County, where Hind was raised on her grandfather’s farm. The scent of manure smells like home to me, as my grandparents’ dairy and cash-crop operation is just a walk through a pasture away. (My mom, the farmer’s daughter, couldn’t bear the thought of moving any farther.) From our laneway I can read the faded black tin letters that cling to the side of the barn, spelling Stone Away Farms.
Farming has been my grandparents’ lifelong occupation. And while I have no financial stake in it, agriculture is important to me. Growing up in a farm community made me the recipient of countless hick jokes and cow questions, but more importantly it gave me an appreciation for the land, and a knowledge about how the food I eat is produced. As a youngster, I would perform my own crop inspections with Grandpa. I’d look on as he shelled out a head of wheat in his hands, stained by tractor grease and nicked by dry air. Then we’d each put a kernel in our mouth, hoping that it would be hard to bite and ready to thrash.
Nowadays, apart from provoking some surprise, seeing a farm story in a daily paper fills me with a sense of pride. But for the most part, the nonfarming population isn’t concerned with what is happening “down on the farm.” They should be, though. Soon they’ll be eating what’s growing there.
While this decade has mostly been a health-conscious one, urban readers are largely unaware of important issues affecting the food they’re putting in their mouths. Many people are ignorant of the debate over biotechnology. Although altering the biological processes of plants and animals seems to hold unlimited potential for farmers-offering higher yields and more disease-resistant produce – opponents fear its long-term effects on the environment, animals and public health. The public also has little knowledge of agriculture policy. Few people realize that although the government prohibits fruit and vegetable growers from using certain chemicals on Canadian crops, these outlawed substances can still be found in produce aisles, on food imported from the United States and other countries.
Anyone who’s been on a livestock farm knows it’s tough to get the smell of the barn out of your clothes. Newspapers don’t seem to have that problem. Each year, Project Censored Canada compiles top- ten lists of stories that have been underreported by the national media-stories it believes the public should have been made aware of. In 1994, two of the ten were related to agriculture. One that made it into the top three revealed that the position of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on plant patenting will limit scientific research and stifle the farm economy. Another story, exposing the dangers of fish farming, was in ninth position. It suggested that disasters related to interbreeding and disease may occur if Canada doesn’t impose stronger controls on the industry.
Agri-food is big business in Canada. It generates $80 billion in sales every year. It helps fill the stomach of every citizen. It employs one in seven Canadians. You’d never know this from the dearth of coverage in the mainstream press.
Back when a milking machine was no more complicated than a farmer’s two hands, newspapers had farm pages, farm sections, farm editors. They provided producers with vital information about their crops and livestock – from harvest predictions like Hind’s, to breeding information that ensured farmers maintained quality stock. But as the urban population grew, the rural population shrank. Newspapers gradually quit writing for a declining agriculture audience. Despite extensive research, I found few agriculture writers left at Canadian dailies, and only one who covers farm news full-time. In fact, I can count the number of farm reporters I unearthed on just one hand: Mike Strathdee at The Record in Kitchener-Waterloo; Michael-Allan Marion at The Expositor in Brantford; Jim Algie at The Sun-Times in Owen Sound; Ric Swihart at The Lethbridge Herald; and Lisa Schmidt, the lone full-timer, at The Regina Leader-Post.
At the Winnipeg Free Press, the grand tradition of prairie farm reporting that began with Hind lasted until the late ’70s. But since then, the daily’s agricultural coverage in Canada’s breadbasket has been sporadic, shifting between two full-time reporters and none at all. Its latest effort, a column called “Rural Revival,” has run every Saturday since August 1996 on the front page of the business section highlighting issues important to the Manitoba farmer. Its author, Laura Rance, also associate editor of the Manitoba Co-operator, a weekly farm paper, says the column was born to fill the agricultural void at the Free Press. “[The Press is] making a commitment of 14 to 16 inches a week, which isn’t anything to sneeze at,” she says. “But, by the same token, it’s impossible for me to do anything in-depth with that either. I think they’re not getting the kind of coverage that they could if they would put time and effort into developing someone in-house.”
Last November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization played host to the World Food Summit in Rome. For five days, 100 heads of state met to discuss the world’s food shortage with the aim of halving the number of undernourished people worldwide by 2015. In 1974, the organization hosted a similar gathering called the World Food Conference. The same issues – such as how to improve the efficiency of the production and distribution of all food and agricultural products – were discussed. What had changed was the reporting. Organizers of the 1996 conference expected 4,000 journalists to attend. Just over half that number actually showed up. In 1974, The Toronto Star sent its own reporter, Mary Janigan, to cover the conference. For three days her stories from Rome were featured on the front page. But in 1996, the Star’s coverage consisted of a single Reuter-AP story that ran on page 12 the day after the summit ended.
Lou Clancy, managing editor of the paper, says agriculture has been an “unfortunate fallout” as newspapers deal with a shifting pendulum of issues. “This is a country that has been through raging constitutional debate, and you have a city here in which there are multiple issues around multiculturalism, around policing, around unemployment, around welfare, around whether or not you can find a decent place to live. These are all issues which newspapers are throwing their resources at,” he says.
The Globe and Mail, too, has shifted its resources. In 1993, its food and agriculture beat in the Report on Business was dropped when reporter Oliver Bertin was reassigned to write about aerospace and transportation. In 1994, Kitchener-Waterloo’s Record pared down its farm beat when full-time agriculture reporter Jim Romahn’s 20-year stint ended with a buy-out offer.
In 1996, Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. bought Saskatchewan’s Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix and promptly laid off more than 20 percent of the staff. Students at the University of Regina’s journalism school followed up with an investigation, reporting that the number of column inches devoted to agriculture declined by 80 percent at the Leader-Post after the takeover. The findings weren’t too surprising considering that D’Arce McMillan, the paper’s farm reporter for eight years, was one of the people Hollinger let go. But even Hollinger couldn’t ignore the province’s key industry for long. In November, the Leader-Post hired a new reporter, Lisa Schmidt, to ensure full-time coverage of farm matters.
If Schmidt headed east to Ottawa, she’d find that the parliamentary press gallery can be a lonely place when agricultural issues are on the table. Barry Wilson of The Western Producer, a farm paper from Saskatoon, has been in the nation’s capital since 1980 as the weekly’s political agriculture reporter.
“Until as recently as five years ago, three or four reporters would show up at [the] agriculture committee on a regular basis. And if the minister was there, or if there was a hot issue, there might be seven or eight reporters. Now it’s almost always just myself. Occasionally a freelancer will be there, but very, very rarely,” says Wilson.
Agriculture may be underreported because of its complex nature. A journalist without some background knowledge on such issues as biotechnology, dairy quotas or crop diseases may have a difficult time separating the wheat from the chaff. Agriculture is “highly polarized and politicized, and the jargon reigns supreme at some of these meetings,” says Laura Rance. “It’s not impossible [to cover], but it’s difficult for a general news reporter to just drop in and do a good job.”
General reporters might fear the farm beat, but the simple fact that agriculture is not very sexy may also explain its absence from the mainstream press. Soybean commodities and trade issues may not hook today’s techno-obsessed urban readers into a story. It’s difficult to appeal to an audience whose closest connection to the land is a bag of milk in the fridge.
In Hind’s time, approximately 60 percent of Canadians lived in rural areas. Today, farmers make up less than three percent of the population. And as generations move further from their rural roots, interest fades. Brantford, Ontario-former home of the Cockshutt Plough Company and Massey Ferguson-was once a major industrial centre for the farm machinery business. Michael-Allan Marion, agriculture reporter at the Brantford Expositor, says that results of a 1996 Southam survey indicated that only five percent of readers are interested in farm news.
The Globe and Mail also conducted demographic studies before eliminating Oliver Bertin’s position as food and agriculture reporter. Since the study found only a small audience for agriculture, the editors didn’t see why they should continue to carry farm stories. “Newspapers tend to be written and read by urban people who don’t have much interest in agriculture,” says Bertin, who would capture the attention of editors and readers by using a clever trick in his leads. “City newspapers, [which] tend not to have any sort of interest or knowledge about farming, have honestly no idea how big the industry is,” he says. “So if I did a story…I’d say the $3-billion wheat crop or the $800-million corn crop. Then they’d wake up and say ‘Gee whiz, it is big, isn’t it?'”
Bertin also recalls one Report on Business editor who suggested that agriculture reporting be moved out to Winnipeg. Bertin asked why. “But Oliver, they don’t have farms in Ontario, do they?” was the response.
In a certain sense, farm stories do make it into the daily press. They crop up every day in business stories (“Truce called in hog war,” Winnipeg Free Press, February 7, 1997) or the life section (“Milk: Nature’s ‘perfect’ food? Or a great white lie?” The Toronto Star, February 11, 1995). They take the shape of health stories (“Here comes the latest word in eggs,” The Globe and Mail, April 20, 1996) or environmental articles (“Farmers reduce use of phosphorus, help clean Everglades,” The Vancouver Sun, September 6, 1996). Some would argue that mainstream agricultural journalism still exists but has simply undergone a shift; that the traditional reports from the field, written for farmers, have been altered to suit an urban audience. The Star’s Clancy is critical of farm writing in daily papers that doesn’t involve the consumer. In 1990, at a meeting of the Canadian Farm Writer’s Federation, Clancy addressed the group of agriculture journalists, saying, “The only kind of story I am interested in is one that has a direct impact on the food on my plate.” In 1996, he reiterates his point for me: “Relate it to me, put it on my plate.”
But the stories that do get ink don’t always relate to our plates. At its annual conference last fall, Dairy Farmers of Ontario formulated its new policies following the win of an important NAFTA decision. Attendees discussed a national pooling system for milk to try to compete better with the United States-an issue that once would have made headlines. But, typical of today’s coverage, the mainstream media’s focus was on the big goal former Toronto Maple Leaf Doug Gilmour scored for the dairy industry. A Canadian Press story in the The Globe and Mail reported that the $20-million milk campaign Gilmour starred in had increased Ontario’s milk consumption by two percent.
While some farm journalists were disappointed by the consumer angle of this coverage, others accept the fact that agricultural reporting is changing. Owen Roberts, director of research communications at the University of Guelph and president of the Canadian Farm Writer’s Federation, predicts a bright future for agricultural reporting. Today, he sees it as being in transition. The challenge for farm writers is to make farm news relevant to urbanites. Not unlike Clancy, he says: “We need to reposition the ag beat to include a consumer beat.” Though it may take some time, Roberts believes “the new ag beat is waiting to be defined.”
Three post-secondary schools in Canada are poised to create this definition. For example, the University of Guelph offers a fourth-year course in agricultural communications, currently instructed by Roberts. At Loyalist College in Belleville, agriculture has been a program option of the two-year print journalism stream for a decade. And from time to time, the University of Regina’s School of Journalism and Communications offers its fourth-year students a class in agriculture journalism as an elective. Although the number of students choosing those options is tiny-this year there are three at Loyalist and four in Regina-the potential for graduates finding jobs in the mainstream press isn’t any greater. “We’re also looking at other directions,” says Loyalist instructor Joe Callahan. “What we’re hearing from some people is that there are more career opportunities in the information business, as opposed to hard-core journalism.” What Callahan is talking about is farm public relations.
Last November, Roberts invited John Muggeridge, managing editor of Farm and Country, a trade journal for Ontario’s farmers, to speak to his class in Guelph. Muggeridge titled his lecture “The Changing Agricultural Media: How You Can Be Part Of It.” Nineteen students listened as he forecasted that food would be the story of the future. As populations continue to grow, the demand for food will explode and farmers will need to increase production. “We’re going to need people like yourselves to help communicate the new issues and challenges to the public,” he told them. Muggeridge summed up his lecture by saying, “The general media has overall abandoned agriculture, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t job prospects for people who want to get into agriculture communications.” In part, these prospects lie with publications like his own.
Unlike daily newspapers, farm publications are looking to hire people who know a cultivator from a plough. D’Arce McMillan, who now writes for The Western Producer, says that the number of reporters at the farm paper has risen in the past 10 years.
Farmers hungry for information can find it in any one of Canada’s 99 farm publications. In days of yore, these publications were often rural people’s only connection to the outside world. Nowadays, they serve as reference tools for a highly technological industry-from updates on the biotech front to bulletins on fertilizer. The fact that the majority are owned by agricultural organizations, such as wheat pools and producer associations, raises the question of objectivity. Could the close affiliation push certain news items to the front page and bury others? John Morriss, publisher and editor of the Manitoba Co-operator (owned by Manitoba Pool Elevators) defends his paper. “We’re not here to promote the virtues of agriculture,” says Morriss. “We are first and foremost a newspaper. We’re not an organ. We’re not an apologist for the profession of our readers. We’re a straight-up newspaper.”
At my grandparents’ house, a daily paper is never delivered to the door. If one does come across the threshold, you might find it in the back kitchen under the rubber boots, keeping the manure off the linoleum. But peek under my Grandpa’s favourite couch and you’ll see his stockpile of The Draft Horse Journal and Ontario Farmer, hidden from Grandma, who can’t stand the clutter. Farmers relish these books. Last February, I roamed the aisles of the Canadian International Farm Equipment Show in Toronto, and I felt I knew everyone I passed – men and women in hats and coats boasting emblems that I’ve been able to identify with seed companies and equipment dealers since grade school. Among the harvester displays and the pesticide exhibits were the farm publication booths, with readers scribbling on paper and pulling out wallets to renew their subscriptions. And despite farm population declines cutting into the subscriber base, these publications can rely on advertising revenue to keep them in the black. They’re filling a vital niche, but these are specialized publications written for farmers. The non-farming population has little to gain by reading them.
For the most part we are a well-fed nation, but most of us are malnourished when it comes to knowing our food. Canada’s non-farmers-about 97 percent of the country-don’t know how the food they eat is produced and processed. This ignorance will no doubt be felt in years to come. Without the presence of agriculture stories in the mainstream press, The Expositor’s Michael-Allan Marion foresees less of an ability for the public to understand farming policy. “Over the next 20 years, an atrophy of agriculture policy may begin to take hold, slowly and subtly,” he predicts.
Without an understanding of agriculture, urban readers are vulnerable to special-interest groups such as animal rights activists and environmentalists.
These groups allege, for instance, that intensive cattle farming is cruel to animals, eating hamburger depletes the rain forest, and livestock-produced methane causes global warming. And when sensational items are all that make the news (like the mad cow panic of 1996), city people develop a lopsided view of farming that could eventually threaten the agriculture industry.
While I was researching this story, all my sources prodded me for my background. When they heard of my farm connection, they became interested and excited; they wanted to conclude that I’m an aspiring journalist with a mission to keep agriculture in the mainstream media.
If Hind could return to investigate the condition of agriculture reporting in 1997, today’s dailies wouldn’t come close to passing her tough inspection. She would surely barge in on editorial meetings across the nation and demand the revival of the farm beat. Perhaps Hind could succeed at such a mission, but it’s too great a task for this farmer’s granddaughter.