Mikkel Pates thanks Agweek readers, viewers and coworkers while looking back on 44 years in ag journalism
Mikkel Pates reflects on his time as an ag journalist in a three-part series.
FARGO, N.D. — Thank you.
That kind of sums up what I want to say, now, as I retire from full-time Agweek work on Jan. 31, 2022. I have loved my career that has spanned 44 years in newspapers, magazine, and television.
It’s been a career of various seasons, my coverage has been about ag production techniques, to ag finance bankruptcies, to federal policies, and to crime. For me, it’s all about humanity.
As I head to new adventures, I’d thank the Marcil family who owns Forum Communications Co., in Fargo, North Dakota. FCC now owns every entity that has paid my wages since I graduated from college in 1979. They are a proud, local publishing company.
Thanks also to Katie Pinke, publisher/general manager of Agweek, who is a bold leader, and editor Jenny Schlecht , a no-nonsense, compassionate supervisor/manager. And thanks to Trevor Peterson, executive producer of AgweekTV, and Rose Dunn, who helped me add video/television to my story-telling.
Thanks to readers and viewers, whose story tips and willingness to share stories are the keys to a 44-year career — a history of both agriculture and journalism.
A long row to hoe
I considered myself a town kid.
I grew up in Brookings, South Dakota. My dad, John L. Pates, was a South Dakota State University Extension Service agricultural editor. He led the publications, broadcasting and print staff for the SDSU Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service (including 4-H and home economics). Dad extolled the virtues of the “land grant” college, with its research and extension roles. (In the 1970s, he was even involved with public television station KESD TV for a daily Extension show, where he read the grain and livestock markets.)
From a young age, I saw Dad using his twin-lens reflex (with a top-viewer). The family made frequent trips to western South Dakota, and often we’d stop at South Dakota ranches where we waited as Dad interviewed and photographed South Dakota’s “Eminent Farmer” award winners .
We had many agricultural connections — Pates/Kiel ranch near Philip, South Dakota, the Folsland honey and crop farms at Oldham, the Severson crop farm at Sinai.
Impressed by the Watergate story, I decided to study journalism and economics. Dad urged me to bolster my journalism degree with a side specialty — agriculture. So I went to South Dakota State University. In the summers during college, I’d worked at camps at Madison and Custer, in South Dakota, and at a canoe outfitter in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota.
Back at college, I worked at the SDSU Collegian newspaper.
Collegian Editor Kevin Woster (the youngest of three journalistic Woster brothers from Lyman County) was a passionate story-teller and loved agriculture. With my ag journalism major and outdoor experiences, Woster dubbed me the “Earth Editor.” I wrote about topics from SDSU Rodeo, to SDSU’s Little International, and a Saskatchewan moose ride by a canoeing colleague and former SDSU football player.
I needed an internship to graduate.
In 1978, I applied for a summer gig with The Farmer Magazine of Webb Publishing in St. Paul. I had read that Managing Editor Tom Doty would only hire farm kids, and teach them to write — not the other way around. I was thrilled to be hired.
The Farmer was “ag reporting” with a capital “A.”
The magazine’s field "editors” were impressive. Most wore suits and ties to the office. All grew up on farms and had degrees in agriculture. They had specialty “editor” topics — dairy, beef, swine, corn, soybeans, forages. Silver-haired Editor Bob Rupp , had been at The Farmer since 1950. Rupp’s byline photo showed him with a tobacco pipe in his hand. He had the confidence of an Army captain who had won a Bronze Star in the Battle of the Bulge. Also on staff were Jim Dickrell, on swine and soybeans, Bruce Pankonin on beef and Neil Tietz, the dairy and forages reporter.
To my surprise (and dismay) all of these guys knew my father. (I told Dad this, and he responded: “Don’t worry,” Dad said. “You may get a job because they know me. You’ll never keep a job because of that.)
I would sometimes stop to chat with Bill Fleming , a tall drink of water who was editor of BEEF magazine. Bill sat in his office chair, with his boots propped up on his desk, flanked by large photos of cattle drives he took for stories. “Let me give you a tip,” Fleming said. “Take your own pictures. More fun!”
The Globe, the NAAJ
I went back for my senior year at SDSU and I wrote a story for the Collegian, localizing a story about the Washington, D.C., tractorcade in December 1978. This clip may have helped when SDSU Journalism Department Head Richard “Dick” Lee urged me to apply for my first post-college job, at the Worthington (Minnesota) Daily Globe .
Daily Globe Managing Editor (and co-owner) Paul Gruchow and Publisher Jim Vance led a magical paper.
Gruchow — author of Journal of the Prairie Year — could wax poetic about conservation and native prairie preservation ethics. Vance and Editor Ray Crippen were diplomatic, erudite and sage — personal and political friends of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
The Globe was immensely popular — a work of art. Notably, it showcased literary prowess and the unrivaled nature photographers like Jim Brandenburg (who left the Globe in 1978 to be a contract photographer for National Geographic, and who later traveled to the North Pole with Will Steger in 1986).
On the "hard news” side of things, Regional Editor Lew Hudson was a crime- and transportation-covering machine. Jay Novak , an ambitious business reporter/editor, went on to be the editor of every major business-focused publication in Minnesota.
For my part, I was simply trying to learn how farming worked and was supposed to work.
For that, I turned to Linden Olson, a hog farmer extraordinaire, who patiently, generously answered my questions over coffee after church choir practice. Other tutors were John Knabe, young farmer and a canoeing cohort from Jackson, Minnesota, and Larry Hyink.
Part of my work was doing feature stories about lifestyle things — plowing with horses. But Gruchow made sure I became a member of the National Association of Agricultural Journalists. The NAAJ was geared to newspaper writers (and later became the North American Agricultural Journalists ). I also joined Investigative Reporters and Editors. I met and learned from giants in ag journalism — Don Muhm and Jerry Perkins from the Des Moines Register; Bruce Ingersoll of the Wall Street Journal; Patricia Klintberg, Farm Journal; John Morriss from the Manitoba Co-operator.
Gruchow sent me to grain marketing and transportation seminars at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. On Jan. 3, 1980, I was sitting in an auditorium when several Cargill executives rose and marched out of the room, ashen, as if going into battle. President Jimmy Carter had unexpectedly imposed his famous/infamous grain embargo against Russia , for invading Afghanistan.
For me, it was the official start of the 1980s farm credit crisis, which would impact me and the farmers I would write about for decades to come.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Stay tuned as Pates continues his look back at 44 years of agricultural journalism over the next two weeks. Look for more on the 1980s farm crisis and beyond.