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February 24, 2014 | About WhatFarmingIs.com
For Contributors: What Should You Write About?
Remember that your life is pretty unique, and that whatever you share is new knowledge for a lot of people. Even a tiny part of your day that might feel mundane can be made interesting– just show why it's important to you.
February 24, 2014 | About WhatFarmingIs.com
For Contributors: What Should You Write About?
Remember that your life is pretty unique, and that whatever you share is new knowledge for a lot of people. Even a tiny part of your day that might feel mundane can be made interesting– just show why it's important to you.

Why the heck would someone read about me anyway? That's the sort of thing I've heard from a lot of people in agriculture, and if you're wondering the same, consider that some of the most memorable stories are those that open a reader's eyes to something new. You're in a perfect position to do this. You only have to take a step back from your routine, and appreciate that what you do is pretty unique, and that very few people are directly connected to agriculture anymore. 

When agriculture is a huge part of your life, it can be difficult to take that step back, and realize that very few people on the outside have very little exposure to it. (In my profile, I wrote about how I managed to grow up in an agricultural area, without ever developing a mature understanding of what farmers do from day to day.) It can be depressing to think that a lot of consumers don't know much about what you've spent your life doing, but now that we have the internet, you don't need to work at the farmers market, or go on some kind of speaking tour to bridge the disconnect. 

There's nothing keeping you from putting your story out there, and by now, I hope you feel that people will listen. Consider the renewed trend of looking at how things are made. A lot of people are in professions where they don't make anything with their hands, let alone turn sunlight into food to sustain the rest of humanity. 

If Kleenex went away tomorrow, we'd find a new place to put our boogers, which could get gross, but we'd survive, whereas nobody would get too far without agriculture. It's arguably mankind's most vital industry, everyone relies on it, and very few people know anything substantial about who and what make it tick. You can change that. 

The stuff that's kind of like asking a fish what water is, the little things that you all do every day? Those are things that consumers are completely unfamiliar with. Plenty of people think feeding cows corn means buckets of kernels, or they have no clue about the number of seed varieties on the market, or no grasp of what farmers do day-to-day beyond "work really hard." If you don't think you have something to write about, call me, and we'll hash something out in under 10 minutes, guaranteed. And I'd enjoy talking with you.

Some Potential Story Ideas

WhatFarmingIs.com is less of a traditional journalistic outlet, and more a consumer-oriented educational resource where you can discuss the undeniables: who you and your family are, what you do from day to day, who and what are involved in how you make decisions, your challenges, your off-farm involvement in the ag community... These these stories have a lot of potential to change the way that people perceive farmers, and agriculture as a whole. Most everyone has a family, and is involved in business of some kind, and when you introduce yourself and explain how your business works, it helps consumers relate to you.

Never assume a project or decision is too small, or too boring for readers. If you suspect that it is, then chances are that you’re about to open their eyes to something they don’t know about, and I will peer pressure you into writing about it. There's a reason you're doing whatever you're doing. Break down your reasoning, and help consumers get it. Just as an exercise, consider the things that fall into these few categories for your business:

How did you get into agriculture in the first place, and why?

  • What are your earliest memories of agriculture? 
  • Who are/were your mentors, and what kind of lessons did you learn from them?
  • Current students: what are you working on now, and how did you get into studying agriculture in the first place?
  • When did you decide to start or join the business full time? Why? 
  • If you started a business– a farm, a store, a customer base for seed, animal feed, etc– what did it take? It was a huge undertaking.

How has your business evolved? What has influenced your management philosophy?

  • What are some of the bigger decisions you've made in the past 20 years, the past 10, and this year?
  • How has your day-to-day routine developed over the course of your career?
  • Who is involved in your decision-making process, and what are your plans for the future? 

Without a doubt, you have become better at what you do over the course of your career, through some combination of formal education, listening to other people in your field, trial-and-error, and adoption of new technology. Candidly talk about your challenges and your mistakes, and the things you’re doing to become even better at what you do.

For example, if you're a farmer writing about a seed order, consider talking about the number of varieties you have to choose from, what factors you base your decision on, the varieties you've experimented with in the past, reasons why you're considering changing the mix of varieties that you used last season, conversations you've had with consultants, etc. Leave readers understanding why it's a little more complicated than buying a Burpee seed pack from the garden store. Also try to throw in a photo of the pages of your seed catalog, and a bag of seed if you have one on hand, a photo that shows what your soil is like, a portrait of anyone who has advised you on your seed choices, etc.

What challenges have shaken up your daily routine? How do these things affect you and your business, and how are you responding? How do you recognize and address your most important bottlenecks so you don't go broke fixing a bunch of trivial problems?

  • Are you dealing with pest pressure? How do you decide on an action plan, and identify your biggest threat?
  • How do you market/sell your products? Through a cooperative, direct, etc. Who do you have to work with?
  • Do you need to renew a land rental agreement? What are the things you need to consider? Why is it important to have good terms? Are you planning to make any improvements to the land (e.g. tile drainage)? Why?
  • Are you having labor issues? How will you deal with them? What are the challenges?
  • Are you coping with major weather-related issues this year? Explain how they affect you. (e.g. why not to drive heavy equipment on a wet field)
  • If you raise animals, are you contemplating improvements to your buildings to improve airflow, lighting, comfort, etc?
  • Are you filling out a bunch of paperwork, or laying down cement and drainage to comply with environmental regulations?

The big goal of this website is to create understanding, in a technical sense (what agriculture is), but also on a human level (who the people behind it are). When you're open about your life, it's a special opportunity for consumers to relate to you. 

If you're a farmer, explain what it's like for the farm to be your home, and to raise a family there. Tell us how and why you got into agriculture in the first place, who your mentors were, the friendships you've developed. If you're a farmer, what do you and your family do when you're not at the helm? This doesn't necessarily have to be agriculture-related, but chances are that you can tie it in.

  • Does someone in the family work off-farm and then do farm work? 
  • Are you involved with 4H, FFA, Farm Bureau, promotional boards, marketing cooperatives, state and county fairs, etc? Talk about what these groups do, and discuss your involvement. 
  • You might write about a recent/upcoming family vacation: the typical where we went/what we did, but also what was involved in preparing to leave the farm, how easy/difficult it is for you to get away.

Any of these bullet-points could spiral into an entire series of stories. 

Just Be Yourself

Sounds like simple high school motivational speaker advice, but sometimes the hardest part of writing really is being easy on yourself. If you don't feel great about your writing ability, talk through it with someone, and write like you'd talk. If you proofread your story and it sounds like how you'd tell it to me if we were sitting together at your kitchen table, great!

The things that remind you of why you're in agriculture are pretty compelling. Just be yourself, and people will like you for it. Also remember that I'm your ally: if I feel that you're personality, or that there's potential to say even more in your story, I'll egg you on with some questions.

If you have a smartphone, a GoPro, or any other kind of video camera, switch on a camera, record yourself talking, or film something from your day, especially if you're not big on writing. Video is an awesome way to supplement writing or substitute for it– there are parts of your personality that will uniquely shine through in a video, whether or not you realize it.

It doesn't have to be a pre-planned cinematic masterpiece– just choose a single part of your day, or something you'd want to snap a picture of for yourself anyway, hit record, and talk about it. It's a pretty powerful way to introduce yourself, and show people what you're doing. Reach out if you need help setting up a YouTube, or otherwise figuring out how to do this.

What You Shouldn't Write About Here

For the most part I'm just the web geek and a volunteer editor who once in a while might give you some pointers that I think could help round out your story. There are only a handful of scenarios where I'd ever ask you to remove or reconsider content, more or less if your writing communicates zealotry, serial negativity, or claims that reach way outside of your area of expertise. 

This is more about education through a character study of people in agriculture, an online seat at your table. Talk about who you are and what you do as an individual, and worry less about declaring your stories part of a grand defense of all of agriculture.

Start a story from the beginning, instead of intercepting someone else's bad information and making yourself an eight-paragraph hero. You really don't need to use Good vs. Evil to write a powerful story, even if it may be inspired by disinformation. A million times over, I would rather get a feel for who you are as an individual, what your challenges are, and how you run your business, without hearing about all the people who disrespect or misunderstand you. To clarify:

Please don't base stories around ripping apart bad information. Of the countless stories I've read by farmer-writers, hardly any of the best were hard rebuttals, which, in all honesty, account for some of the more boring articles I've seen, largely because they become predictable. Also, starting on an angry, or anxious note probably isn't all that inviting to open-minded consumers who should be presumed somewhere between being super knowledgeable about agriculture, and being cynical. (If you walked into a room full of strangers who were all complaining about something you don't know a lot about, would you feel comfortable?)

Organic, Etc vs. Conventional, Big vs. Small, and other two-sided debates, begone! Bad marketing aside (which farmers should not be broadly held responsible for), the argument about the efficacy and morality of organic and conventional agriculture typically amounts to sermons for people entrenched in either camp. And altogether, debates like organic vs. conventional are time vampires that keeps consumers from understanding the actual challenges that farmers face, like labor, and finding good rental terms, or being pinched between production costs, commodity prices, and Mother Nature. It stifles literacy by compressing the humanity and complexity of the entire agricultural sector into a highly polarized, two-sided entity. 

Such two-sided debates about agriculture are pretty popular, and a quick way for anyone with a keyboard to make a splash, or a restaurant like Chipotle to make a buck. But there's not nearly as much energy put into straightforward narratives to advance public understanding. This website is about creating something new, and highlighting the true complexity of agriculture. 

I believe that the influence of misinformation is unchecked because of the lack of a solid foundation of up-to-date information about what farming is. This website is one way to resolve that. If you're still not convinced that we should make an effort to keep dialogue here fresh, I wrote another article about why this website isn't called What Farming Isn't.

Quality Over Quantity

You're not under any pressure to crank out stories, so take your time, and recruit a couple friends to give you feedback, ideally one person close to you, or involved in agriculture, and another person who is interested in agriculture, but doesn't know a whole lot about it. For one, it's easy to miss spelling/grammar issues, and as writers, from time to time, we all get tunnel vision, and can't quite predict how readers will react to something. If a couple people say, "I really didn't get that part," it's a good cue to rethink how you deliver that part of your story.

As a contributor, you have your own section of the website: your profile is really more or less your own blog, where you can publish a bio, and where every store you've written will be accessible. You can promote your own page, and beyond that, your stories will be linked to from elsewhere on the website, or highlighted on the homepage: dozens of articles can fit on there before it gets cluttered, and eventually articles could be organized by categories or keywords.

Assuming you don't have a great abundance of free time, I'd recommend focusing first on working up your profile page, and starting off with some Farm Snapshot stories: take a few photos tomorrow, choose one, and write a few sentences to explain what's happening and why. Even a quick glimpse can be eye opening for readers. 

If you feel compelled to write more, add more photos to the story and keep going! And again, if you do write something a little longer, I'd recommend revisiting it over the course of a few days, and seeking some outside opinions. Even if you don't find many points to improve upon, you'll probably end up feeling more confident in the end product.

Have Fun Sometimes Too!

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