A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Rebecca Wilson, Field editor – Indiana AgriNews

By Quill

Q: Much of your beat involves livestock, how much time do you spend in the field?

A: Some weeks, every day. Other weeks, not at all. I like to be in the field as much as possible, but there are other times where I need to work the phones as hard as possible. (One week), for instance, I knew my readers needed to know more about how different animal welfare auditing, assessment and certification programs were developing. This required in-depth interviews with animals scientists, meat packers, processors, producer groups, grocery stores, PETA, trade representatives and government sources. I barely had time to write, I was on the phone so much. By the time I finished, the story had morphed into a series.

Q: Where did you get your journalism training?

A: I began freelancing in high school for the now-defunct Bloomington Voice in Bloomington, Ind. I completed an editorial internship at Sassy Magazine in New York City before graduating high school, then worked my way through Earlham College in Indiana, where I majored in sociology and anthropology. I worked as a news writer in the Office of College Relations. My duties there included writing news releases, updating the community calendar and writing features for our alumni magazines.

Q: During one of your field assignment, you were charged by a llama and nearly trampled. What made the llama so mad, and why did he charge you?

A: Perhaps one would think a job in agricultural journalism would be a boring job, simply talking about the weather in the hog barn at the county fair, but I think it qualifies as extreme.

I’ve suited up with beekeepers to examine hives, getting stung multiple times in the process. I’ve donned my biosecurity suit and wondered through pig pens, a situation that requires great attentiveness because, as our governor Mitch Daniels proved on the campaign trail when he got bit on the ass, pigs are a force to be reckoned with. Bulls have toyed with charging me, but have never followed through.

But there was one day when I truly feared for my life. It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was out in the field taking pictures and interviewing a farmer on intensive grazing management. He had an operation where multiple species, including sheep, cattle and poultry, grazed the same fields. The farmer wandered off ahead of me while I was taking pictures. Through the view finder I see the guard llama, Dolly, take off at a flat-out sprint toward me. This animal weighs at least 400 pounds and stands a good 6 feet tall. I lower the camera, but there is really no where to go.

You can’t show fear, you can’t get excited and scream at the farmer, who is paying no attention to me, and you definitely can’t outrun it, so I just made a decision to hold my ground. The thing runs straight up in my face, but somehow manages to stop without running me over. It didn’t spit on me, but I’m sure I got wet because she landed her nose right in my face, through my hair and over my body as she sized me up to determine if I was a threat to the animals under her charge.

The farmer finally came back to re-establish my personal space, and while I still think llamas are really cute, I’ll never take one for granted again.

Q: Did you grow up on a farm or belong to Future Farmers of America when you were younger?

A: I grew up in the country, but I had no concept of FFA or what production agriculture was really about. I thought because I grew up in Indiana, I automatically understood those things. It was my writing ability and my love of Indiana that got me hired at Indiana AgriNews, and I’m eternally grateful for the experience because it has caused me to have a much greater appreciation for where my food comes from and the amazing complexity and diversity of agricultural issues.

Q: What is your day-to-day routine like?

A: The day is supposed to run from 8:30 to 5, but I am rarely that easy to pin down. My beat involves all aspects of the livestock industry, from artificial insemination to international trade, environmental and land-use issues related to farming and specialty crops, including mint, tobacco, hot peppers, honey and watermelons. We visit producers all around the state, so it’s not unusual for me to be on the road early and getting home late. … In reality we don’t live so much by the clock as we do by the ebb and flow dictated by our stories.

Q: When you were getting your journalism training, did you forsee yourself hanging out on the farm?

A: I never foresaw myself heading toward a career in ag journalism. I still dream about features gigs pioneered by guys like Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke or some column like Sharon Begley’s Science Journal in The Wall Street Journal. But when I think of moving on in my career, I pause because I realize how lucky I am. Agriculture is so diverse, I never get stuck on a boring beat, I’ve got a great mixture of chatting with high-level government officials, both state, federal and local, informative lectures and one-on-one conversations with leading academicians and great times in the field — whether it be with herding dogs, hogs or wine producers.

Q: What is the best thing about your job?

A: The diversity of the beat, being able to write from home sometimes, traveling around Indiana and learning how much cool stuff is really here, the freedom to plan my own story schedule and creatively approach my stories, even injecting a bit of humor from time to time. It is also nice to work for a relatively small family-owned publication that demonstrates an appreciation of their employees through annual bonuses, good insurance benefits, a 401K, pension plan and additional savings incentives.

Q: Do you have any words to live by?

A: I wish I could remember exactly who they came from, but Editor & Publisher once quoted an old magazine editor as saying, “Reporting is just a matter of an ignorant person becoming a little less ignorant.”

This is now my personal motto, as I’ve found admitting ignorance gets me much further than pretending like I know what’s going on when nine times out of 10 I have no clue, and that’s why I’m asking in the first place.

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