From Corn to Cattle
Today I crossed the border from Iowa into South Dakota and already the fields of corn and soybean are turning into prairie and pasture. There are more roadside advertisements here too. It’s easy to drive along reading signs instead watching the road. One of them said:
“EAT STEAK. WEAR FURS. KEEP GUNS. THE AMERICAN WAY.”
Welcome to South Dakota.
My first stop is Sioux Falls where, at 10pm tonight, my Dad flies in from Manchester, via Chicago. I am very much looking forward to having a travel companion and sharing my ‘Wild West’ adventure with a child of the 1950s. He was raised on John Wayne movies and Spaghetti Westerns, stories of the Black Hills and Badlands and South Dakotan legends like ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok and Calamity Jane.
I’m writing this post sitting at a picnic table, shaded by trees, overlooking Sioux Falls. It’s a green and peaceful spot which, to be honest, is a sight for sore eyes. I’ve been travelling on a shoestring and budget motels are usually just off the Interstate or next to a gas station. Don’t get me wrong, the rooms have all been really comfortable and I’ve not met a rude receptionist yet, but you can’t really go for a walk or sit in the sunshine with trucks tearing past you. You’ve got to admit they’ve got a kind of rough diamond charm. My boyfriend said these photos reminded him of Breaking Bad!
Monday was Memorial Day here in the States. I was in Des Moines and one of my Nuffield contacts invited me over for a ‘grill out’. Gil Gullickson is Crop Technology Editor at Successful Farming magazine, circulated to nearly 400,000 farmers across the US, and it was great to join an American family on a public holiday. We ate homemade hamburgers and corn on the cob and chatted about Gil’s childhood growing up on a farm in a remote part of South Dakota. An only child, Gil learnt how to amuse himself hunting and fishing in the wild country around his home. After college he trained as a journalist and moved to Iowa with his wife Lisa and their two children Grant and Bridget. Des Moines is a pretty big city so, like me, he’s adapted to urban life. Gil held on to the family farm, which is now rented out, so I asked if he’d ever go back. He looked doubtful and his family didn’t seem too keen on the idea either. I felt a connection to Gil as a country kid who’s found a career in the city but still manages to hold on to those farming roots.
Along my journey through Illinois and Iowa I’ve met farmers across a range of sectors – grain, pork and poultry – who, on the whole, had really positive things to say about working with the media. They were all exceptionally open and honest about their industries and keen to engage with anyone willing to listen. Sometimes however, people aren’t willing to listen and that’s obviously a frustration. Americans though, are natural communicators and the industry is connecting with consumers in imaginative ways (sometimes bypassing the media altogether and telling the story themselves).
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to journalists too, both in mainstream press and broadcasting and on specialist agricultural publications. I was amazed by how many come from farming backgrounds and are born and bred locally. It’s unusual coming from the UK where people move around so much in their careers – especially media folk. Of all my school friends, there aren’t many of us who decided to settle down where we grew up. I’ve had well over a dozen addresses since I left home! Yet pretty much everyone I met has family or farming ties to Illinois and Iowa. I guess these ‘pioneer’ states are still comparatively young, some towns were only founded three generations ago and the cultural tie to the land remains strong among the general population.
The news journalists I met were experienced, impartial and had a solid understanding of the key issues in agriculture. I had expected some pro-ag bias (obviously the specialist publications were) but the ‘generalists’ as I now call them were equally well informed on both sides of argument, even on a left-leaning newspaper (it’s no secret US farmers are traditionally conservative). Why did this surprise me? Because I can count on one hand the amount of UK ‘generalists’ I know who could run me through a story on GMOs or antibiotic resistance in as much detail, and without opinion or preconception.
One other interesting observation is that agriculture is exclusively covered by the business reporters. In the UK it is more likely to be covered by environmental correspondents. It points to the economic power of farming in the Midwest – a quarter of Iowa’s total economic output is connected to agriculture.
In spite of that, some issues are exactly the same as back home. Farmers repeatedly said they feel disconnected from urban consumers (and they’re talking about the town a few miles down the road, not New York City). And several newspapers and radio stations have lost their agricultural correspondent post. Even they are not immune to the global decline in traditional media.
And this is in the heart of rural America – what will I find in Chicago?