This week — or was it last week? — marks an anniversary for this reporting effort: 30 years ago the first Farm and Food File appeared in three central Illinois newspapers. One of those brave beginners, the Bloomington Pantagraph, continues to publish it weekly.
Thirty years of anything seems like it should be a big deal and yet, on the farm, 30 years is often viewed as just a good start.
My father, after all, farmed for 45 years and his Uncle Honey, who “helped out” on our farm — and occasionally set parts of it ablaze — worked 50 years as, first, a milkman and, later, an absent-minded tractor driver with matches. A Nebraska farmer friend just planted either his 74th or 75th crop.
In truth, the key number in my line of work is making deadline. So far, I’m shooting par on a tough course: In three decades of weekly freelance columning, I’m 1,560 out of 1,560.
Come to think of it, “He made this deadline, too” might be a good epitaph for my final edition on this good earth.
Like many of life’s pleasant curveballs, this writing life was unplanned. In college, I was on a slow train — think milk-run slow — for a degree in farm management when an out-of-patience dean handed me a one-way ticket back to the farm.
“Come see me when you’re serious about being here,” he announced. “And good luck.”
He spared me his more embarrassing assessment: And good riddance.
Two years later — I mentioned slow, right? — he readmitted me as a married, 23-year-old, mid-year junior. His only condition, however, was a big one: “To stay, I will need to see some great grades from you.”
Great grades meant writing, a part-time gig I played in my previous stay at the Big U for dorm buddies who couldn’t tell a verb from a Volkswagen.
Many happily paid a modest retainer, usually in brewed refreshments, for me to show them the difference.
The return to writing was destiny. Sixteen weeks and four credit hours of “A” later, the dean wore an optimistic smile and I glimpsed a path to fulfilling work.
Eighteen months after that I had a degree, a job in ag journalism and little idea of how it all happened. That was 40 years and more than a million words ago.
The early years of story chasing — first at Pro Farmer, next at Successful Farming and, later, eight years as a freelance contributing editor at Farm Journal — built contacts and confidence.
What it didn’t build was certainty. Freelance anything — writing, plumbing, fishing, farming — is a roller coaster: when you work, you work like a fool and when you don’t, you worry like a fool that you’ll never work again.
That reality hit hard in early 1993 when the boss at Farm Journal, a magazine that had bought every sentence I had typed for almost a decade, telephoned to fire me.
His reason was inarguable; “You can’t walk down the middle of the road anymore,” he said.
True, nor did I want to because most of agriculture’s milk-and-honey middle was being hogged by aggressive corporate newcomers and integrators aiming to dominate livestock, meatpacking, machinery and crop biotechnology.
Left to compete on the pothole-filled edges were thousands of small- and middle-sized farmers, ranchers and rural communities struggling to just survive in their now-unrecognizable, increasingly commoditized world.
The swift changes brought story after story that most ag magazines didn’t want to publish because their readerships were rapidly changing, too, and the publishers, like their readers, were struggling to understand Big Ag’s growing presence and already outsized influence in both the marketplace and government.
So, most just favored stories that favored their now ever-fewer, ever-more influential advertisers over their ever-disappearing readers.
That role reversal, fueled by the rapid rise of the internet, however, made space for others to take up the challenge and there I was with time, an empty bank account, two growing children and the lovely Catherine to encourage me.
Then you took over and here we are, 1,561 weeks down the road. Give or take a week, that is.