Minnesota Agri News has a new reporter cranking out copy. He loves writing about how great it is to spend public funds helping CAFOs put in pits full of liquid poop. He’s a good writer. Trouble is, he’s got a bit of a conflict of interest, one that Agri News has neglected to mention: tax dollars pay his salary. See your money at work in the Jan. 15 edition of Agri News.
Two news articles that appeared in Agri News this week carried the byline “Dick Tremain.” Beneath the byline is the contact e-mail, “email@example.com.” This would lead one to believe Tremain is journalist on-staff with the weekly newspaper, which is a major source of ag news in Minnesota and northern Iowa. But Land Stewardship Project staffer Adam Warthesen noticed that one of the articles, “Young farmer says conservation pays big,” was particularly positive in its portrayal of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a USDA initiative that has received some bad national publicity of late.
As I noted in this blog a few weeks ago, an analysis of EQIP by the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, of which LSP is a member organization, found that a disproportionate amount of the program’s funds are going to help large-scale industrialized livestock operators. They are using this money to build facilities such as liquid manure storage systems, which long ago proved themselves to be environmental debacles. That wasn’t the intent of EQIP, which was supposed to help family-sized operations of all types put in a variety of environmentally-friendly systems.
The CFFE report received national coverage, from the Boston Globe to Public TV’s Market to Market program, and factory farming’s supporters such as the National Pork Producers Council haven’t been too happy about the revelations. Also upset was the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which administers the program.
Despite all this, the Jan. 15 Agri News article failed to mention any of the negatives about EQIP. In fact, it tried to paint a picture of a program that assists young hog farmers by helping pay for large-scale liquid manure systems. The article took special pains to point out that the manure pit that was built with EQIP money by the young farmer featured was tested and there was little if any chance it would leak. We’ve heard that one before.
After doing a Google search, Warthesen discovered why the Jan. 15 Agri News was so positive: Dick Tremain is a public affairs specialist with the NRCS. A government public affairs specialist’s job, among other things, is to generate positive publicity for government programs. (Tremain’s other bylined article in the Jan. 15 Agri News is on page 1; this one is about how NRCS helped a farmer put in some terraces—get this, it turns out that conservation project was a total success as well!)
As an employee of the NRCS, Tremain was doing a bang-up PR job in Agri News this week, but he wasn’t necessarily providing a complete picture of a program that the USDA’s own statistics show is flawed. That’s the job of an independent journalist. By not disclosing Tremain’s employer, Agri-News is helping NRCS and EQIP’s commodity group defenders put a 100 percent positive face on a program in need of major reform.
I called the Agri News editor, Mychal Wilmes, and he confirmed Tremain was an NRCS staffer and that his newspaper has used his copy in the past. I asked Wilmes why Tremain’s affiliation was not identified, and he said it was a “mistake” on his part. It turns out people are out on vacation, etc., etc., and the paper had some news holes to fill, and he liked this particular piece on EQIP because it was “positive.” It certainly was.
Wilmes agreed that news articles written by paid PR people from outside the newspaper should carry extra information identifying the author’s affiliation. He said in the future he would make it clear who was paying the salary of the writer. I will give Wilmes the benefit of the doubt and assume it was an honest mistake. I don’t think he was out to pull one over on his readers. But I’m not sure he and other ag editors see why this is a big deal. From my years working as an ag journalist at newspapers and magazines, I know that government agencies—NRCS, Extension, etc.—are often seen as “objective” sources of information by the farm press. As we’ve seen with EQIP, that’s far from the case.
I also think that in the past the agricultural media has been given a bit of a pass when it comes to journalistic integrity. Because it has its roots in providing farmers with the latest weather and cropping trial results, “farm reporting” has gotten the reputation of being a noncontroversial area of news that doesn’t need to adhere to principles of objectivity, etc. Nowhere is this more clear than in the field of farm broadcasting—farm radio directors smoothly slip from reading the news to doing ads for Monsanto and no one bats an eye.
As a lover of independent journalism, I abhor the idea of media outlets using any copy generated by a PR professional and calling it a “news article.” Agriculture is a controversial, often complicated topic, and it deserves to be treated with the same kind of thorough, hard-hitting journalism that other issues are exposed to. But as a realist, I realize the bind people like Wilmes are in. Times are tough for all businesses, and agricultural newspapers are no exception. The filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the Star Tribune is a grim reminder that independent journalism is on the ropes.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, and as news staffs shrink, media outlets will be tempted to accept free copy, audio and video even more in the future. That may be the reality, but it doesn’t make it right. It’s our duty as media consumers to remind editors that we still care about reporting that is not paid for by an agency or group with a particular axe to grind.
It’s amazing what can be learned from a Google search and a phone call.
Thank you for your compliments. It’s always nice to hear positive feedback on my writing.
I’m making this posting from home. I am off the clock and can speak freely.
Whenever I write an article I am very careful with facts. I don’t have an axe to grind, but I am interested in promoting good agricultural practices to others with the hope producers will want to emulate the good ones and their practices.
I’ve found that when producers follow good stewardship practices we all win.
I believe in fact based stories. That’s what I write and that’s what I send out.
When I submit an article for publication, I make it clear who I am and where the article came from.
The young producer in EQIP story is a good producer; a true conservationist. You should meet him and see his operation. He is making a living off of the land and he is being environmentally friendly doing it. I applaud his work and the practices he uses. For example, by storing his hog manure in his manure storage facility he is able to save it to time its use on the land. By using manure for fertilizer he is making his crops more productive, increasing soil tilth, and saving some $50,000 a year in commercial fertilizer costs. By so doing, he cuts the conversion of natural gas into commercial fertilizer lowering competitive pressure on natural gas use thereby allowing the rest of us lower natural gas heating bills.
(This winter I really need lower heating bills.)
Environmentally and economically this is a win-win situation. The environment benefits, his soil benefits, the farmer is able to save money, and productively produce food for all of our uses at a low cost.
Brian, I work some very talented people at NRCS. They are committed to improving the environment and agricultural production. If mistakes are made, we want to correct them because we live here, too. If you have specific knowledge of EQIP funded manure storage facilities that are leaking and causing problems, you need to get that specific information to the attention of the local NRCS office. We are committed to helping people help the land. We want the best for our environment. We show that environmental commitment by working with cooperative producers one farm at a time.
There are many good producers in Iowa working to help the land. Simply go to http://www.ia.nrcs.usda.gov and look at the success stories. One of my favorite success stories was done on Francis Thicke. Francis considers cows a major source of power on his farm. I’m proud to say NRCS professionals are helping him make his farm productive, environmentally friendly, and helping Francis be a leader in his field. Cows and solar power help power his operation. EQIP helped with those costs, too.
There are many good stories out there. Yes, there are a few bad stories, too. Having said that, I am proud to be with a professional organization working to build people up, improve their farms, their livelihood and help the environment, too. I invite your, Brian, to help us build. Help us help people help the land.
I would be interested in knowing whether or not Agi-news ever did a follow-up revealing the conflict of interest between Dick Tremain and NRCS.
Thanks for holding a flame underneath Agri-news and NRCS.
Your letter gives such a wonderful spin in promoting NRCS, however I have personally found the NRCS to be a wasteful institution that lacks oversight for the federal funding they receive. Far from helping us help the land, in our personal case they almost destroyed our livelihood.
I am a sustainable organic farmer from central MN. I work hard in managing my land and knowing the limits of production for it. Farmers who overextend what their land can sustain (i.e.– CAFO operations) should not be rewarded with tax payer’s money to clean up their mess.