Who better to explain advancements in agriculture than farmers themselves? This driving question brought on discussion during the Communications in Ag panel held at the Ag Connect Expo in Orlando. Three well-known agriculturalists and communications experts made up the panel, including revolutionary ag communications educator Dr. Jim Evans of Illinois, renowned farm broadcaster Orion Samuelson, and Minnesota farmer and former director of the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service (FAS) Mike Yost.
The panelists agreed in the importance of farmers telling their story as more people are farther away from the farm. "Farmers are very credible sources of information,” Yost says. "We (farmers) have a great story to tell.”
A problem arises, however, when newspapers and other mass media outlets cut their reporters and content when setting the budget. And it seems agriculture reporting is too often one of the first cuts made. This makes the job for agricultural communicators more important, as they have to carry the true story of agriculture to a broader audience with only limited resources.
Samuelson says communicators can help alleviate confusion in the ag industry by checking the facts. Samuelson, who has served as a farm broadcaster at WGN in Chicago since 1960, says using correct statistics, information and terminology is one of the first steps to telling agriculture's story in a better way. "It's far more important to be right than to be first," he says.
Many problems that can hurt the agricultural industry arise at increasing rates, and people who do not understand agriculture can easily take false information and terminology to the media, especially with the development of the Web. Samuelson says an example of this problem is the reporting on Mad Cow Disease, which has scared consumers and made many afraid to eat beef. Yost agreed that he spent more time at the FAS trying to re-open U.S. beef export markets than anything else after Mad Cow Disease became such a popular topic in the media.
Issues such as this one provide many opportunities for agricultural communicators to take action despite the mass media's decrease in ag reporting. Evans says students with an interest in becoming agricultural communicators have other numerous opportunities ahead of them, whether they have an interest in reporting for an ag publication or marketing a product for an ag company. Evans has more than 33 years teaching and research experience in the agricultural communications field and was also a leader in establishing the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center at the University of Illinois. In his time working in the industry, he says he has seen students' passion for agriculture, which will help them in any professional setting.
"There is a great spirit of interests in young people,” Evans says of agricultural communications students.
That spirit, coupled with students' understanding of how to tell a story that combines the science and human interest aspects of agriculture, is important for continued industry success, he says.