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Of farmers and journalists

PITTSBURGH — A journalist is supposed to ask questions. On rare occasions, when we're especially brave or foolish (or both), we invite readers to submit questions for us to ask in their stead.

That's what I did during the recent annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Pittsburgh. Though I'm not a member of the group, its event had a strong ag component and I received a fellowship to attend.

Bravely or foolishly (or both), I asked Agweek readers to send me questions for environmental journalists here. A number of you — some of whom I knew, some of whom I did not — took me up on the offer.

I've got some answers now. Treat them cautiously; they're merely my impressions and best guesses. They're not the result of extensive journalism. They're based only on what presenters said, on my conversations with other journalists and on a few comments overheard in buses, hallways and hotel elevators.

This I'm sure of: Environmental journalists, like all human beings, come in different ages, genders and skin colors. They have different life experiences. Some have been environmental journalists for decades, others are just starting out. Some focus exclusively on the environment, others cover a number of topics. Some see their job as a sacred calling, others are less passionate but no less dedicated.

First, foremost and always, environmental journalists are individuals. No more, no less. Think of them that way, treat them that way.

Now comes the hard point: trying to answer what readers asked. There's not enough space to tackle all of it. But here are a few of their questions, condensed and combined, followed by my thoughts. Please remember this is a column, in which I express my personal opinions, not a news article.

Do environmental journalists understand the farm bill?

Experienced ones seem to have a pretty good grasp. Inexperienced ones don't, though they want to learn. It won't be easy. The farm bill is really complicated. Environmentalist journalists also are challenged because most mainstream aggies prefer to shield the farm bill debate from public view. The less "outside" attention there is, the more likely mainstream aggies get what they want.

Do they see my farm as a threat? If so, how do I counter that?

It's dangerous to generalize, of course, but some may see your farm as a small part of a larger threat. The great majority, I think, want first-hand information before making an assessment. If you truly believe it's not a threat, invite them to your farm and let them make their own judgment. Yes, there's risk to that. But farmers pride themselves on being prudent risk-takers.

Any farming practices they particularly dislike? Any they really like?

There's a lot of concern about ag practices that might hurt water. There's enthusiasm for cover crops, soil health and sustainable ag in general.

How do we get them to use accurate information, not misleading speculation?

That's a tough one. Perceptions of what's accurate vary greatly. For instance, is glyphosate safe? I think so, but some people much smarter than me think otherwise. My advice: Give environmental journalists firsthand demonstrations in your farming operation that you think support your position. Environmental journalists want to learn, and they want to get things right.

A final thought: Environmental journalists are responding to what a growing number of Americans fear, think and wonder. If you ignore environmental journalism, you ignore a powerful trend in America. Your business and way of life will suffer if you don't react quickly, seriously and respectfully.

The aggies who sent me questions recognize that. Kudos to you, and thanks again. I just wish I could give you more detailed answers.

And thanks again to the environmental journalists for having me. I hope my impressions/best guesses portray you fairly and accurately. Like you, I want to get things right.

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