Monday, October 30, 2006

Define ag … in 100,000 words or less

It has been more than four years since I first walked into the Capital Press building in Salem, met with Mike Forester, and walked out with a new line of work.
And this foray into agricultural journalism has meant a somewhat-late-in-life learning curve, quite steep at times. Uncomfortable at times. Dang near impossible at times. But never – never – has it been dull.
One thing we keep coming back to here in the newsroom has fascinated me: How do we define ag?
I don’t know how long that issue has been a subject of discussion around here, but in the past four years it has brought out some real concerns, some great laughs and some discernible changes in the Capital Press.

Pony up the news space

For instance: Are horses agriculture?
There was some real reluctance to extend our coverage to what some folks have long considered as pets. Well, that may be true here in the Willamette Valley, where most horses are pleasure animals.
But as we peered here and there, we discovered there are more than a few farms where draft horses – not tractors – pull the plows. And out in the ranch country to the east, horses are valuable employees as well as genial companions.
So if working horses are agriculture, how about pleasure horses? How about racehorses? How about saddle makers and harness makers and farriers and trainers and breeders?
(Biographical aside: My Granddaddy Brown was a harness maker back in Stillwater, Okla., until he saw that the internal-combustion engine was quickly overtaking the alfalfa-combustion horse. So he took his leather-working skills and opened up a shoe-repair shop, figuring folks would always need shoes. His motto: “Brown’s Shoe Shop – Where We’ll Save Your Soles And Heel Ya.”)
So horses have gotten their feet … hooves … in the agricultural door, and they have gotten their photogenic selves firmly entrenched in the pages of this newspaper. Often you’ll find a page with a “Horses” label at the top, and the annual Livestock special edition has a horse-focused section of its own.

Let ’er print

Is rodeo ag? I honestly didn’t see the connection until I went to cover a youth event: Rodeo Bible Camp, in Tygh Valley, Ore. A fellow there said something like, “I’m glad to see Capital Press covering rodeo. It’s a big part of agriculture.”
And it hit me: Half of “agriculture” is “culture.” What our readers love to do is an integral part of their culture.
How far we go with that often butts up against our main focus of production agriculture. Rodeo season coincides with a very busy part of the growing season. So it’s a balancing act, especially when nearly every county fair has a rodeo, and the 10-year-old barrel racer in Tarnation, Idaho, is just as much a part of the agri “culture” as the pro bull rider at the Pendleton Round-Up.

Decanting the crop

How about wine? Vineyards are certainly agriculture, and we’ve got grape ranches popping up all over our four-state coverage area. (“Yep, I’ve got about 500 head of Syrah out there, all fattened up and ready for market.”)
But for a long time, there was debate (never heated debate, not in this laid-back newsroom) over whether wine is ag.
If wine is a value-added product that comes out of a vineyard, then by that definition chewing gum is a value-added product from a mint field; and toothpicks, from a forest; and salmon, from irrigation runoff; and amber ale, from a hopyard … there’s no end to how far we journalists will carry a thing to make our point. Especially when we’re print journalists, not limited to the 30-minute TV news hole faced by our broadcast counterparts.
Back to wine: It seems we’ve taken the bottle in hand here at the Capital Press, covering everything from research, pests, irrigation and harvest (which is where the “traditional” definition of ag would end) to processing, bottling, labeling, marketing and international trade.
Maybe that’s the word we’re looking for: “traditional.” Are we going to stick with what was long considered agricultural? Or are we willing to look at it from every aspect we can find?
Well, this is our newspaper and we’re refining our working definition of ag as we go along, and we’re looking out for the folks who are our readers. If we go too far, we expect our readers to let us know that.
Please! Before my managing editor puts me on the toothpick beat!

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