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Commentary: How we produced an agricultural paper in a pandemic

Issue Date: June 23, 2021
By Dave Kranz
Dave Kranz
During the 15-month-long pandemic stay-at-home regime, the California Farm Bureau published these 58 issues of Ag Alert and seven of California Bountiful, as editors, designers and other staff worked remotely from home.
Photo/Jessica Cook

In 1870, Mark Twain published a satirical short story titled "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper." In it, an itinerant newspaper editor temporarily takes over an agricultural publication—and causes chaos in the community by publishing nonsensical advice about pumpkin trees and the molting season for cows.

Confronted about his lack of agricultural knowledge, the editor lashes out: "It is the first time I ever heard of a man's having to know anything in order to edit a newspaper."

A little more than a century after Twain wrote the story, I discovered it in a short-story anthology I bought at a used bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. I found the story amusing.

Little did I expect that I would end up as editor of an agricultural newspaper, that my future employer was based just a few blocks up Telegraph Avenue at the time, and that our paths would intersect in Sacramento about a decade later.

As I prepare to retire after 37 years with the California Farm Bureau, including the last 13 as editor of Ag Alert®, it's an opportunity to reflect on the function this agricultural paper served during the past 15 months. The COVID-19 pandemic affected every aspect of life, including our day-to-day work of producing Ag Alert.

Ag Alert editors have done the best we can to explore every aspect of the pandemic affecting California farmers and ranchers: their efforts to assure the health, safety and, ultimately, vaccination of employees; how the markets for their crops and commodities changed, almost instantly, and how they adjusted their operations to respond; how farm life was affected by the loss of off-farm income as other businesses closed or downsized; how the pandemic affected rural life as county fairs closed and food bank demand surged; and now, as restrictions ease, how the food system may have been changed for the long term.

As California relaxed its pandemic-related restrictions last week, we all returned to the Farm Bureau building. It was a chance to reunite with colleagues we had seen only on video conferences or communicated with only via email for the previous 64 weeks.

During that time, Ag Alert editors, designers, advertising representatives, logistical staff and freelance reporters managed to do something that wasn't assured when the pandemic began: We maintained our weekly publication schedule, delivering the newspaper to our readers in print and online throughout the emergency. So did our sister publication, California Bountiful® magazine, which continued to reach its nonfarm audience with stories, recipes and features encouraging readers to seek out California-grown food and farm products.

As Ag Alert reported on how farmers and ranchers were having to adjust their operations on the fly to assure safety and provide quality products during the pandemic, our editors and designers were making adjustments of their own. Spare bedrooms became offices; dining room tables became desks; home Wi-Fi systems struggled to handle the load of large publication files; pets, doorbells and occasional homework questions interrupted workflow.

The Farm Bureau Internet Technology staff worked superbly to switch Ag Alert from an office-based enterprise to a remote operation, almost literally overnight, and responded promptly to cure the occasional hiccups that arose. Our publications couldn't have reached readers without the dedicated work of printers, mail house staff—even the postal carriers and internet service providers who ultimately deliver our stories to you.

We recognize how fortunate we were to be able to continue to do our jobs in relative comfort while so many were not. We are thankful to everyone who continued to grow, harvest and market California food and farm products, and we dedicated ourselves to telling their stories as best we could.

Now that we've returned to our offices, we will continue to report on the impact of the pandemic, as well as all the other forces shaping California agriculture—chiefly, this year, the grinding drought and resulting water shortages.

Wherever possible, we will also look for and report on solutions to the short-term and long-term problems confronting California farmers and ranchers. And we'll continue to look ahead.

When I assumed my role as editor, I adopted a mantra that our assistant editors may have grown tired of hearing repeated: As a weekly newspaper in the digital age, Ag Alert has to tell its readers what's coming, not what already happened. I'm confident Ag Alert will maintain that forward-looking focus.

Of course, this whole exercise would be pointless if it weren't for the Farm Bureau members who share their time and insights with our editors and who read our publications. Thank you.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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