Saturday, October 28, 2006

Press on the Trip

Good Press was a difficult thing to drum up on this trip. At the early stages I just didn't feel like I had a firm enough grasp of what I was doing to try and talk to reporters. And of course there was the time factor. In addition to riding 50-60 miles a day I was trying to visit farmers, write a weekly newspaper article, take notes, take photos, find a place to sleep each night, and make sure my family wasn't freaking out. So I didn't have a lot of time to look up local newspapers and tell them my story.

Then a good friend Michelle Blackwood set up an interview for me with Kingman Leader-Courier while I visited her families farm in Kingman, KS. Michelle had seen my entry entitled Problems Abound, and generously offered to help with a few of them.

The interview was hilarious. When I took a step inside of the office headquarters it was like walking into a paper from 50 years ago. The place smelled like old newspaper, primarly because all the old copies were kept in a disorganized clutter in the back room. Talk about a fire hazard. The editor/publisher did the interview and asked all about what kind of food I ate at night, where I slept, how long I'd been on the road.....and then....that was it.....the interview was over. We had spent about 5 minutes talking about his son who had lived in Georgia and then about 5 minutes on the interview. Nothing about farms. When I told the Kinsler's (Michelle's family) about the interview they laughed and said, "it'll be a miracle if any of the informaiton you gave is correct". A few weeks later my sister called and said she had received a copy of the paper in the mail. They had taken a couple of pictures of me. One of them was actually on the front page, and then the second photo was also included inside the paper with the second half of the article. The pictures were virtually identical. Once I get back I'll type it up and publish it because based on my sister's reading it should be quite entertaining.

Shortly thereafter I wrote a press release and started sending it to a few larger papers a few days to weeks before my arrival. No one responded. I even called a few. Often I never even talked to anyone who had seen the press release. Given my limited time, I pretty much gave up on the idea and focused on more fruitful pursuits. Then every once in a while I'd jet a few out.

Finally I got an e-mail from the Nugget Newspaper in Sisters, OR from Jim Cornelius.The interview was at 10:30 in the morning, but it was a cloudy, groggy day, and Jim invited me into his office which resembled a bear's den. It was completely dark and he sat in the shadows and began to interrogate me. It just wasn't the kind of environment that elicited inspirational vocabulary. After each question he would kind of sternly peer into me as if to see if anything interesting could possibly fall out of such a dull story. In all fairness, Jim was very helpful in suggesting I visit the Small Farmer's Journal before leaving town.

So here is the result of what I thought was a miserable interview.

Before you read it I should add that I had a couple other encounters. One was a story in the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, a real live ranchers paper. I can't imagine the conversations it must have stimulated. I need to ask for a copy of that story as well. Finally, just yesterday a young woman named Shasta with the Tillamook Headlight Herald stopped me while shopping for fruit at a roadside Farm Shop called Bear Creek Artichokes. She had just graduated from college in Eugene and this was her second week on the job. She saw that I was bike touring and asked if she could interview me. We sat on the hood of her car and for about twenty minutes all the ingredients of my trip began to come into focus. I don't know what she'll write but I told her everything from Thomas Jefferson's agrarian vision for the nation to statistics on the percentage of American's incomes spent on food relative to our past and to every other nation in the world. I loved it.

Without further's that Nugget article.

Cyclist takes pulse of U.S. farming

By Jim Cornelius
News Editor

Justin Ellis is nearing the end of his cross-country bicycle trek. photo by Jim Cornelius
Justin Ellis' business card lists his occupation as "Seeker."

It's a pretty good job title for a young man who spent his summer trekking across the United States on a bicycle, visiting farms to discover the state of American agriculture.

He's visited 60 farms in his trek and has discovered - to no one's surprise - that farming as a way of life is under stress in America.

"People... are skeptical of future prospects," he said.

Farmers feel a reduction in the pride and respect accorded to their way of life, and many are not sure they want to see their children carry on what has been for many a livelihood and culture spanning generations.

Ellis saw evidence of this before he even started his trek, in his home town of Clarksville, Georgia.

The community is rapidly changing, with an influx of newcomers with no connection to the poultry farming that has been the town's economic mainstay. The sense of common values is eroding.

"There was a lot of division in the community that wasn't there before," Ellis said. "You just didn't have the same community dynamics that you did. The community ceased to have pride in (its farming heritage)."

That kind of change was a common phenomenon across the nation. Ellis chose the bicycle largely in order to get a closer view.

"I thought I'd understand it better if I visited these farms by bicycle instead of the rapid pace of an automobile," he said.

His seeking has a purpose. Ellis is in a master's degree program at the University of Georgia, heading for a career in shaping agricultural policy. He hopes to craft policy that will support small farming.

"I needed to understand the playing field better," he said.

The picture is not all bleak. Ellis noted that many farmers and ranchers are finding local niche markets with high quality, specialized products. The model of Oregon Country Beef, which seeks local markets and partners with restaurants such as Sisters' Depot Deli, may hold out real possibilities for farmers.

"The farther apart the producer is from the consumer, the less viable it is for the farmer," Ellis said.

The cultivation of local markets may be an antidote to the erosion of farmers' ability to make a living.

"People are seeing hope in that," Ellis said.

10/31/2006 7:54 AM Rebekah wrote:
The article and picture turned out to be impressive.

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