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Staff picks: Our favorite stories of 2021

These are the must-read stories of 2021 our staff chose as they reflected on their work over the last year.

Jodi Henke, National Radio Host

I created many Successful Farming podcasts in 2021 with topics ranging from farm family stories, to machinery, to weeds. But I’d have to say my personal favorite is the one launched in December on the barbed wire telephone. It took me a while to find someone who was knowledgeable about the history of this invention, but I persisted and found him.
 
I love history, I love nostalgia. And I believe many of our podcast listeners do too. It brings to light the hardships our ancestors went through during those early days on the frontier, and the incredible ingenuity they used to connect with each other. To me, this totally embodies the heart and strength of every rancher and farmer.

Betsy Freese and Lisa Foust Prater pose with a poster size version of Lisa's magazine story, Betsy Freese: Boss Lady
Lisa Foust Prater, Family & Farmstead Editor

I wrote about some serious issues affecting farm families this year, but one feature that stands out as a bright spot for me was “Boss Lady,” the tribute I wrote when Betsy Freese retired. 

We had been coworkers since I joined Successful Farming in 1999, and I had the pleasure of reporting to Betsy for most of those years. When I first met her, I was intimidated by both her journalistic accomplishments and her straightforward communication style.

As Betsy and I worked together and became friends over the past 22 years, she taught me that journalists need thick skin, encouraged me as a writer and a mother, and led by example. She served up no-nonsense advice with a side of heartfelt wisdom.

Betsy put her ostrich-cowboy-boot-clad feet right up on the table in the middle of the good ol’ boys’ club, and it was fantastic to witness. 

Betsy Freese is and will always be a true boss lady.

Laurie Bedord, Executive Editor, News & Technology

A favorite part of my job as an editor is connecting with farmers. For more than 20 years, they have welcomed me into their operations, allowing me to tell their stories. Whether we’re standing in the barn, driving through a field, climbing into a combine, or gathered around the kitchen table, they have shared their victories as well as their disappointments and heartbreaks. 

This past year Michele Gran shared the story of her son Landon who was tragically killed on August 14, 2019, in a grain bin accident. As I sat and listened to Gran relive what happened, her tears flowed easily more than a year later. It was clear he was a remarkable young man who was taken from this world far too soon. While Landon’s story was filled with sorrow and pain, it was also filled with love and determination.

Against the Grain: Minnesota mother turns her grief into a mission to make grain bins safer

Within days of losing her son, Gran began channeling her grief to actively pursue change. Contacting state lawmakers and leaders of farm organizations, she advocated for a variety of grain bin safety measures including a mandatory buddy system, a safety harness requirement, added protections around sweep augers, and a wearable device that allows a trapped person to shut off the auger and call for help, among other things.

In February 2020, Gran’s moving testimony to Minnesota lawmakers, alongside Minnesota state senator Nick Frentz, led to a bill that provided $50,000 in funding to help Minnesota farmers purchase grain bin safety equipment. The Grain Storage Facility Safety Cost-Share program reimburses 75% of eligible expenses up to $400 per bin. It is limited to $2,400 per farm per year. When I wrote the story in February 2021, 73 applications totaling $57,825 had been received. Although the allocated amount has been depleted, private donations extended the program’s reach.

In addition, the bill allocated another $50,000 for an outreach program, which may include creating and presenting a grain storage facility safety curriculum. Funds could also be used toward university research for an app that would remotely shut down a grain bin auger through a cell phone or other device.

While these stories are never easy to tell, I hope writing about a mother determined to make a difference inspires the changemakers in us all.

Dave Kurns, Editorial Content Director

As editorial content director, deciding what stories we cover is one of my primary roles here at Successful Farming. Overseeing the editorial subject-matter experts is very rewarding. I have been in this role for nearly 10 years, and creating the “Editorial Calendar” is a cornerstone of the job.

This year, one of the most memorable stories we published was a package of stories written by Crops Editor Bill Spiegel about Black farmers titled, “Always Looking Forward — what it’s like to be a Black farmer in the United States.” The story (along with other sidebars) touched upon the struggle Black farmers have had historically in America. It also ran in the February 2021 issue of Successful Farming magazine.

Black farmers have had a struggle since the end of slavery and the Civil War. The U.S. government offered Black farmers 40 acres of land after being freed as slaves, then had the order rescinded by the same government. To make things worse, many Black farmers were then forced into becoming sharecroppers. Even the USDA has a history of discrimination in its programs for Black farmers. All of these stories touched a nerve with readers.

A black farmer holds a clump of soil
Photo credit: USDA

Spiegel, a Kansas farmer himself, covered this story with skill and a careful hand that decades of experience covering agriculture brings. I am certain these stories will win journalism awards in 2022. I am proud of the work he did, and in Successful Farming for telling stories that impact the entire world of agriculture.

The piece also captured an optimism from Black farmers, including Dewayne Goldmon, an Arkansas farmer now retired from Bayer Crop Science. Goldmon’s words were never more true: “We have more in common than not in common. We’re farmers just like white farmers. They love farming and we love farming.”

Here are the other stories:

Alex Gray, New Products Editor

Alex Gray headshot
Photo credit: Alex Gray
As the (new) New Products Editor at Successful Farming, I don’t have a lot of stories under my belt yet (more to come), but I’m proud to have this story as one of my first. This was a story I almost didn’t cover since there wasn’t really a new product announced, but come on! It’s a story about tractors and NASCAR! That’s too cool not to write about. And it turns out I was right to trust my gut, one of my first stories published to Agriculture.com made it in the top five most viewed that week. I think that’s something to tell Mom and Dad about.

Gil Gullickson, Executive Editor of Crops Technology

Dicamba damage to neighboring crops and vegetation has been discussed and cussed ever since dicamba-tolerant seeds were launched in 2016. Dicamba damage concerns have continued since then, with some passionately defending the technology and others wishing it would go away. 

The Environmental Protection Agency gave dicamba a new five-year lease on life in October 2020 through a five-year label for dicamba formulations applied to dicamba-tolerant crops.

29033_dicamba

Yet, off-target damage again resulted in 2021. What made this year different was that Harry Stine, founder of the Stine Seed Company, raised his concerns in a strongly worded dissent in July. Since Stine genetics are in much of the U.S. soybean seed industry, his criticism is noteworthy and formed the basis of a November 2021 story in Successful Farming, “Dicamba’s Dilemma.” 

What I thought was unique about this story is you had two types of farmers — Adam Martens from Inman, Kansas, and Harry Stine (even though he’s head of a large seed company, he’s still a farmer) calling for the technology to be fixed or nixed if that’s not possible. The story also gave coverage to manufacturers, who stressed continued education is a key to reducing off-target concerns. At press time, the ball was in the court of federal regulators who may or may not issue additional restrictions on dicamba.

Megan Schilling, Digital Content Editor

I’m fascinated by the unique twists and turns in people’s career journeys – especially in agriculture.

In “Leading the Field,” published in May 2021, I interviewed five agronomists about their innovative work and partnerships with farmers. They also talked about their paths into agriculture, and you might be surprised by how some of them got their starts.

One of my favorite quotes from the article is from Tammy Ott who says, “What keeps me grounded and excited to wake up and continue my work as an agronomist is working with farm families in rural Nebraska. You really learn the value of hard work lacing up those boots every day and doing what it takes to get the job done as a team.” 

I have so much respect for those who help farmers be successful. Agronomists do that well.

Madelyn Ostendorf, Digital Content Editor

Madelyn Ostendorf headshot
Photo credit: Madelyn Ostendorf
I have worked at Successful Farming for a little under two months now, which means I don't have a whole host of stories to pick from like some of these other folks do. However, the ones that I do have I am very proud of. If I had to pick just one to call my favorite of the year, it would be “How Kansas State researchers hope to solve a billion-dollar problem in the swine industry.” 

It was one of the first articles I wrote, but it’s not my favorite because it was one of my first. It's my favorite because when I read it, I remember how enthusiastic Megan Niederwerder, assistant professor at Kansas State University, was about her research. African swine fever is not a particularly fun topic to talk about, but when I was interviewing her for this story, I could hear the passion in her voice. She was excited about the impact the research could have in helping farmers be prepared for a swift and effective response should the virus enter our country – and it made me excited for her. I feel that little bit of joy every time I click on that story and read it again.

Natalina Sents Bausch, Managing Editor – News

As a kid growing up in rural Iowa, I spent a lot of time in the car. Everything was a drive – church, the grocery store, Grandma’s house. On these road trips I would ask my parents questions and fill notebooks with their answers, scribbled in colorful gel pens. “Mom, how do fires start?” “Dad, why do people go to jail?” “How come some people are adopted?” “Why can’t people fly?”

Now, when events around the world impact agriculture, it’s my job to ask how and why. I get to learn so much. And yes, I still take notes in bright colored ink.

Map of Texas cold temps
Photo credit: Iowa Environmental Mesonet

Last February as we all scrolled pictures of ice in Texas wiping out water and electrical service on social media, I got to call the experts and ask the questions we were all wondering. I called farmers to ask what was really happening. I interviewed climatologists to ask what was going on. I pored over maps and historical weather records. Putting the answers together in this popular web article made me feel like a kid again. It was reassuring: Maybe I’ve been meant to be a journalist all along.

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