August 16, 2005

Urban Americans Get Farm News on Food Pages

WASHINGTON -- With only a sliver of the U.S. population living on the land, Americans are more likely to see farm animals at the petting zoo or meet growers at the local farmers market than on a visit to the countryside.

And, increasingly, they get their diet of farm news from the food pages of their big-city newspapers. Food writers routinely tell the personal story of agriculture -- who grows the food that goes in the salad bowl or on the dinner plate.

Readers learn about vineyards replacing tobacco farms in North Carolina, the labor-filled life of Laotian immigrants striving to buy vegetable land in California's Central Valley, a third-generation family of organic farmers in Colorado, or a 30-cow Vermont dairy farm that makes tasty blue cheese.

"We get a very good response to our stories that connect our readers with the sources of our food," said Karen Haram, food editor of the San Antonio Express-News in south Texas, where topics have included goat farmers and lavender growers.

Haram responded to an e-mail query to food writers about their coverage of farmers, part of an evolution at metropolitan newspapers, which sent farm reporting out to pasture years ago for the most part.

"It seems to have formalized into a reality in the last three or four years that food editors are going to be one of our key audiences from here forward," said Mace Thornton of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farm group.


The divergence in coverage reflects modern agriculture.

A relative handful of big farms produce the bulk of the nation's grain and livestock. Most of America's 2 million farms are small, often within driving distance of a job in town.

Agriculture still gets play in the business or general news pages but the food section is now a reliable place to learn about growers, often smaller-sized crop and livestock producers who supply chefs, stores and farmers markets near their homes.

"It probably started when we started writing about farmers markets," Marion Burros, a New York Times food columnist, said in an interview.

"Most of the stories you will find are from the consumer perspective. We don't write about futures (markets). We never do stories about industrial farming."

Food writers seize topics that are bread and butter to farm writers as well -- the offbeat cattle breed or a new crop winning a money-making niche, or a big-picture story about the sector.

Carolyn Jung, food writer at the Mercury News in San Jose, California, described a recent package of three stories on the scarcity of young farmers. The main story ran on the front page while the food section carried profiles of two farmers under age 35 who were bucking the trend.

Jill Silva, food editor for the Kansas City Star and vice president of the Association of Food Journalists, said the rising American interest in local foods made farmers a topic for coverage. The Star regularly features farmers and artisan food producers as well as writing about new links between grower and consumer, she said.

"We have started a series of profiles of farmers, growers and ranchers called 'Field to Table,"' said Kristen Browning of the Denver Post. Browning said the feature was "a way to connect our readers with the people who grow our food and to honor those that do that work."


For its part, old-line farm journalism centers on big-acreage crops like corn and cotton or large-scale hog and cattle feeders -- a world of massive equipment, hybrid seeds and ever-pressured profit margins out in the countryside. The commodities markets and farm subsidy laws are regular topics.

To many urban readers, those stories hold little appeal or seem downright dull. Some critics within the farm sector say it's no surprise agriculture can be relegated to an occasional story in the business section -- the same status as any other industry with no overt presence in a city.

What influence the new urban audience will have on U.S. farm policy is a subject of debate.

"A lot of it depends on how open the next farm bill process becomes," said Ralph Grossi, head of American Farmland Trust, a land preservation group.

When Congress gets to work next year to overhaul farm subsidies, vegetable growers, environmental groups and small-farm advocates will try to grab some of the billions of dollars now flowing to grain, cotton and soybean farmers. Row-crop growers traditionally have the ear of farm-law writers.

The newspaper food section can have an impact. One farm activist said his group, which campaigns for land conservation and less use of farm chemicals, got a flurry of calls and e-mails when it was mentioned by a prominent food writer.