Liza Burger, South Africa

Harvesting the good times

Chance of a lifetime

Being announced as one of the recipients of the 2010 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism award, is the highlight of my career as a journalist covering the (seemingly mundane) agriculture beat. 

I jumped at the opportunity to join in on the pre-congress to Luxemburg, and it turned out to be a wise decision indeed, as a few days after landing in Amsterdam, Iceland wrote itself into the annals of history with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, causing one of the most disrupting commercial aviation events.  

Being safely on European soil after a long flight from Johannesburg, I had little to worry about. However, it soon became evident that the cloud of volcanic ash would not only leave thousands of people stranded world-wide, but also prevent scores of IFAJ congress delegates, including three of the Alltech Young Leaders, from attending the event.  

I don't know if this cloud had a silver lining for those who missed out, but I am truly grateful that I could attend this once-in-a-lifetime event and represent my country at the IFAJ congress. 

Becoming an ag journo

My background in journalism prior to becoming an agricultural journalist included positions at several weekly and twice-weekly community newspapers (of various shapes, sizes and importance in the larger South African community press context). I started my first real job fresh out of college in 1999 as a junior reporter for a community paper in the capital, Pretoria. 

Since I've joined the outfit at Agri Connect – a small publishing house owned by the South African Milk Producers’ Organisation – I have discovered a whole new subculture in journalism.

My current responsibilities include being one of the senior journalists for The Dairy Mail (a monthly magazine for the dairy industry) and lately some of our other publications for the red meat, and wildlife ranching industries. The very first big challenge was to quickly find out how the primary dairy industry functions as a whole, and to present this to the experts in the field: the dairy farmers themselves! 

Although I have been reporting for over 10 years, receiving this honour from the IFAJ and Alltech was unexpected, a humbling experience and a great confidence booster. Writing for the agricultural industry is never easy, but always fun and filled with exciting new experiences. This award and the chance to attend the IFAJ congress in Belgium raised my own expectations regarding agricultural journalism, and improved my perspective on the massively important role farmers play in feeding the world. 

Whether it was luck or destiny that has brought me to this point is irrelevant as I have enjoyed every step taken in my muck-covered boots when visiting farms. Every interview with producers or processors have always added new experiences, facts and stories to my still somewhat-empty bag of agricultural knowledge.  

Three years ago I would have sneered slightly at the notion of reporting on matters agricultural and writing features on subjects like the benefits of cow housing and teat dipping. Today I'm still reeling at the thought of how little I know after three years on the job while, at the same time, standing astonished at what I have learnt about milk production and agriculture in general. 

And it is more exciting than I've ever imagined it could be! 

Network

The chance to meet fellow agricultural journalists at our local branch of Agricultural Writers SA, has in the past few years showed me the calibre of writers, reporters and photographers I would have to emulate, and compete with, if I wanted to make it. I can but only encourage other journalists to get involved with your own Ag Writers' branches to keep on raising the bar amongst yourselves. 

Colleagues play an even greater role, and I've been lucky to be surrounded by some great publishing professionals. At our publishing company, it's been the very gentle hand, lots of corrections in red ink and subtle teachings of my sub-editor, Lynette Louw, that have made my stories printable.  

One difference between the news environment I've come from and writing for niche publications on agriculture is the constant guidance and advice from colleagues and editors. The competition here is not so much between writers – or even other publications – but is rather between yourself and your last effort. 

Between passion and pressure

The awesome experience the IFAJ and Alltech offered to us, the ten award recipients, was the chance to meet journos of similar age at similar points in their careers and to share their experiences, expectations and perspectives of our chosen profession.  

It was reassuring to meet agricultural journalists who are passionate about what they do and what our work can mean to the world – even if it is only in our own countries. The new friends I've made on both the pre-congress and the actual congress all had qualities I could relate to and admire. Many of these qualities I still need to foster, so as far as that goes, the trip was well worth every Euro. 

It was also a relief to know that whether you try to hack it in South Africa or work in Canada, Germany, England or Slovenia – there are always interfering factors that can make your job a lot more complicated than would seem necessary. At the panel discussion in Oostende, this topic was touched on to an extent (focussing on the congress theme: "Between passion and pressure").  

However, it was during our bus trips, in the pub or during the few hours of free time that the real pressurel of satisfying publishers, owners, organisations, advertisers, editors and readers came to light. 

In some countries, like my own, we also have to contend with political correctness – a definite cause of pressure for all journalists who believe in press freedom.  

To counter these pressures, you need passion in excess, as carving out a good read for Farmer Jack is not as simple as I thought it would be. It is hard work and it takes a lot of effort, research and fact checking to satisfy the modern day farmer.  

Though most farmers are still meat and potatoes men, they are also graduates or at least thoroughly educated authorities in a wide range of fields, ranging from agricultural sciences to economics. Farmers need to be at the top of their game in different areas, such as management, financial planning, labour relations, crop and pasture science, animal handling, reproduction and genetics, technology and many other specialities that few other careers demand from people. In short: They are a tough crowd to please. 

First prize

Despite the honour of awards like the Alltech Young Leaders fellowship, writing a story that makes a difference and which is read and appreciated by the intended reader, remains the biggest prize any journalist can hope for. 

Having said this, the sponsorship from Alltech made it possible for me to visit not only Belgium, but also Luxembourg.  

Without going into detail on how impressive all the tours, visits and landscapes were, I need to emphasize the amazing accomplishments of these small countries with their very small patches of arable land. From the wine and crèmant produced in the Mosel valley, to the Limosine stud, the Belgian Blue veal production units, the Luxlait dairy processing plant, various dairy farms and even the overwhelmingly impressive Floralies azalea show we visited – all showcased what intensive and clever farming can achieve. 

Lastly, experiencing true Belgian hospitality and making new friends from all the corners of the globe will leave a lasting impression on me. It was an honour to get to know some of the great names in agricultural journalism and meet the rising stars in this particular branch of writing and reporting. 

With a bit of luck I hope to meet all of them again at the next IFAJ congress in Canada.