America Needs a Countryfile
I’m back from the US and my brain is buzzing.
On a three week research trip through the Midwest and Chicago I’ve gathered piles of newspapers and leaflets, recorded hours of conversation and scribbled on every available space in my notebook. My conclusion? Nuffield research is really hard.
One thing, however, is as clear as day – and it’s something I suspected all along. The disconnect is real. Urban bias is real. Rural America is not cutting through. And it filters right through the media.
The attitudes towards agriculture I encountered in Chicago ranged from dismissive to suspicious, complete ignorance to a passionate determination to expose the wrongdoings of the industry. Conventional, commercial farming, from what I can see, has few friends in Chicago’s busiest newsrooms.
I sat in an editorial meeting on a major newspaper and felt downright stupid asking about their coverage of farming the day after dozens of people were gunned down in an Orlando nightclub. The fact I felt embarrassed and my research seemed insignificant in that office was my first inkling that attitudes here are vastly different to those I encountered in the rural areas. I was on the back foot.
One editor took some time to chat to me after the meeting and seemed at best amused and at worst bored by my line of questioning.
“Look, we have more stories than we know what to do with,” she said. “There are times when we would do these [farming] stories but we wouldn’t manufacture that interest. We wouldn’t go looking for it. It’s not relevant to write about it for the sake of writing about it. Unless it’s got immediate relevance to our readers then why would they be interested?”
I pointed out that everyone eats food, therefore farming and the rural environment is relevant. She agreed that the consumer angle is important. If an agricultural issue affects food prices or food safety then, of course, they (most likely the business desk) would cover it but the struggles of the farming community are not relevant. “They [farmers] have a chip on their shoulder about not being appreciated,” she added.
But the conversation that followed surprised me. She talked about her semi-rural upbringing and shared fond memories of living in a farming community. “My idyllic small town memories are amusing to urban people,” she smiled.
In fact she talked at great length and with some affection for farming. When I suggested that she may be disproving her own point about there being a lack of interest in rural affairs, she replied: “But I’m an anomaly and it doesn’t exist any more. They like the romantic notion of an idyllic small farm. That’s what people want. I laugh at the ‘farm to table’ movement. It’s such a joke to watch city slickers slobber over this. They are completely removed and I don’t think people in America stop and think about their food sources.”
Like many people I met on my travels, she bemoaned the intensification of modern agriculture, large farms, corporate ownership and the loss of what she remembers of rural America. I mentioned a statistic I’d heard from the Illinois Farm Bureau claiming that 97% of the state’s farms are still family owned. “I don’t believe that,” she said bluntly. “I think they are kidding themselves that they are independent because they have to be corporately owned.”
It wasn’t the first time that stat was questioned or rejected by a journalist in Chicago. I think I know what’s getting lost in translation here – the journos believe “family owned” means small. A “Mom and Pop” situation. Whereas “family owned” could actually mean a board of shareholders. That farm may have been in the same family for 100 years and has grown into a company.
Personally I don’t see the problem with that but then again, I understand how modern farming works. To someone in the city the term “family owned” could sound like some slick PR spin deliberately designed to mislead them. Doesn’t it just prove the disconnect though?
I came away from that meeting feeling very confused. I did not disagree with her point about reporting stories that have a direct impact on the lives of readers – I’ve been a journalist long enough to understand what sells papers. I also found some impressive investigative work that is rightly holding the American agricultural industry to account (this is not a squeaky clean industry by any stretch of the imagination).
But I could not get my head around the knee-jerk ‘anti ag’ attitude, the prevalence of some pretty wild stereotypes and the presumption that rural issues aren’t interesting. There was a lack of curiosity about the countryside.
I did spout off a few times about Countryfile being an overnight success after it was moved from a sleepy Sunday morning slot to prime-time on BBC One. A programme dedicated to countryside issues, from farming to wildlife conservation, is now regularly the most-watched factual programme on British television and we’ve topped 9 million viewers on occasion (more viewers than The X Factor).
The Americans were fascinated by this and shook their heads in disbelief. There is nothing like Countryfile on US national television, only a rather dreary and extremely specialist rural TV network. I watched it one evening – two farmers talking in depth about the merits of a trailer. Anyone outside the industry would fall asleep in two seconds flat.
Among the million and one thoughts rattling around my head right now – here’s one that’s formulating into some kind of conclusion:
The urban media is well aware of America’s giant farming industry (they see it as ‘big business’) but not the individuals behind it.
What do I mean by that? Well, the Chicago journalists I met rightly cover the big issues – GMO labelling, antibiotic resistance, agriculture’s impact on water quality and so on.
But I picked up on a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of the individual people, communities and way of life behind the ‘faceless’ industry. The human aspect is getting lost. There appears to be no appetite for stories about the people and places, animals and landscapes inside ‘The Flyover States’ and the land of ‘Big Ag’.
It made me feel very proud of Countryfile which brings the reality of the British countryside into living rooms across the UK every Sunday evening. You can see smallholdings on Countryfile, you can see thousand acre grain farms on Countryfile. You can see hen houses with ten chickens and broiler units with tens of thousands of chickens. The countryside has modernised along with the rest of the world and just because people no longer plough the fields with oxen or ride in a horse and cart doesn’t mean their stories are any less interesting or ‘real’.
And while there are negatives associated with modern agriculture, there are fascinating untold stories too. Imagine following the journey of an Illinois soybean? From developing that seed in a lab to preparing the soil for planting. High-tech harvesting through the night under floodlights on the Great Plains. Stick a GoPro on the grain elevator as thousands of tonnes are stored in giant silos on the family farm. Meet the local people, explore their history, understand why that otherworldly landscape is so darned flat. Then follow that seed’s epic journey by railroad, to a barge on the Mississipi, out to the Gulf of Mexico and across the world. Who would you meet along the way? What would you see? This is the reality of how our food today is produced and the story has stalled at whether we agree with it or not.
I’ve made films for Countryfile that cover the good, the bad and the ugly of British farming. That, to me, is the reality of the modern countryside and I believe people, wherever they live, are interested. They just may not know it yet.