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A late blooming farming writer


"My writing style is indeed 'idiosyncratic''


By Sue Edmonds
Member, New Zealand Guild of Agricultural Journalists and Communicators 

Editor's note:  We are grateful that Dr. Clive Dalton of Wellington, New Zealand, alerted us recently to Sue Edmonds.  She is a popular agricultural writer, he explained, "a small-block farmer herself so really knows what it's like to wear gumboots, and her readers very much appreciate that.  She also has the patience and skill to understand what the bureaucrats pump out…and translate it for simple souls like me to understand."  Thanks to Sue for accepting our invitation to share with IFAJ members, and others, some thoughts about her career and her approach to agricultural writing.  If your reading experience is the same as ours, you will enjoy and learn from them.   

-       Jim Evans 

"A 'communicator of agricultural issues' past and present" 

I’m about to turn 67 and am thoroughly embroiled in my latest career change, having become what I term a ‘communicator of agricultural issues’ past and present. 

My road to this destination has contained many twists and turns, most of which had nothing at all to do with agriculture.  I didn’t go to journalism school, nor did I grow up on a farm.  I think I had ancestors who worked on farms in the UK in days of old, and I’ve had a strong interest in environmental issues after I married a botanist in the 60s. 

Twelve years ago I gave up my last incarnation as a striving executive working in Wellington, New Zealand, and moved back north to the Waikato, where I bought a one-hectare ‘lifestyle block’ consisting of five small paddocks, and an elderly wooden house.  It was only after a friend had procured two weaner heifers for me, to eat the rapidly growing pasture, that I realised I knew more or less nothing about dairy farming, and here I was surrounded by them. 

In my 13 Wellington years I’d progressed from being a secretary, to running a plethora of executive roles in the Head Office of Federated Farmers (including running a national farm training scheme), to aiding the CEO of a large meat processing company, to working as Environment Private Secretary to the Government Minister, to devising management development programmes in a central government department, to setting up an Industry Training Organisation for the Ambulance industry. 

Coupled with this I’d continued a late start (at age 39) at being a university student, and managed to complete Diplomas in Business Management and Industrial Relations, and half a BA in English. 

Yes, I’m a trier! 

Always a writer 

All of my jobs had included writing, of all sorts.  So when a change of circumstances in my Waikato lifestyle forced me to consider new ways of earning money, I rang the editor of the largest local metropolitan paper and told her that she didn’t have any columns about what it was like to be a ‘lifestyler’.  She agreed, asked to look at some stuff, and a week later I was a weekly columnist! 

After three years a new editor decided I should change my role, and use what he terms my ‘idiosyncratic writing style’ creating articles about people of interest in the agricultural area, these to be published in a farming supplement which was being revived.  I even got the opportunity to take over as editor of this supplement for five months while they rode out a staffing freeze and found a ‘proper’ editor for it. 

These days I write for two fortnightly national farming papers, one monthly regional one, and one focused on new farm dairies, which comes out annually. 

In the interim I’ve been an assiduous ‘lifetime learner’ on matters agricultural, and am now considered by local farmers to know what I’m writing about.  But my past experiences and networks in training, politics, government, and association through my ex-husband in the university and science research sectors, has been enormously useful, and probably given my writing a breadth that those trained in strictly ‘journo’ writing might, or might not get.

 How I get ideas for stories 

You may wonder how I get ideas for stories.  Well having, in my earliest years in the UK, lived through the era when people milked cows sitting on three-legged stools, and having a father who was a pilot and longed in vain to be a topdressing pilot after we moved to New Zealand in the early 50s, lots of farming history has been going on in my lifetime. 

So I’m always up for finding people who have done things the ‘old way’ and hearing how they did it and the funny things that happened to them.  Making history come alive for younger people is fun. 

Just as keenly, I like to find out about all the new developments in farming, meet the sort of people who start using them quickly, and write about what differences they make to how they farm. 

My political and research interests mean that I keep up with what’s going on in various parts of the industry, and can then pass on ‘farmer friendly’ versions to my farmer and other readers.  I’m keen on keeping townies up with the farming developments, and doing my bit to reduce the rural/urban divide in understanding. 

These days I still write a column about the amazing things that happen on my bit of land, my two fat cows, my two donkeys and my two goats, plus the assorted wildlife, good and bad, which comes around.  But I also write pieces about farming politics and what various industry bodies are up to. 

"My writing style is indeed 'idiosyncratic''

My writing style is indeed ‘idiosyncratic’ and I write more as a knowledgeable columnist than a journalist seeking stories and quotes from multiple sources.  While for many aspects of journalism a variety of views is useful, my readers now expect to have things explained to them, in language they can relate to and, often, laugh about. 

Living alone and writing as a freelancer, I have time -- something those in newsrooms have less and less of these days.  So I can find events, meetings, seminars and field days, get myself invited to them, and then go and be there for the whole session.  Others attending them know that’s what I do, and that I won’t be going round getting quotes from everyone to cobble into a story for tomorrow’s front page.  My network of relevant people, and my personal ethics in how I use material, are my most valuable writing assets.  

My membership of the New Zealand Guild of Agricultural Journalists and Communicators, and the meetings of our local coffee group WACO (Waikato Agricultural Communicators Organisation) have provided strong support for my efforts since the beginning, and been a wonderful way of making friends who do similar writing. 

"…read and read and read…" 

I’m glad I didn’t get into this when I was young.  But for those who are attempting to do so I would suggest that they read and read and read every farming publication around, familiarise themselves with how farming actually works in their region, and write their stuff in ways that farmers can understand, remembering that farmer reading is generally done at the end of long days, and snappy quotes are the last thing they want to read at that time. 

Read some of Sue's features.  See her writing style. 

Author contact information: 

Sue Edmonds
Email:  sue.edmonds(at)clear.net.nz  

Note:  This feature is provided through a professional development partnership involving the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists (IFAJ) and the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center (ACDC) at the University of Illinois.