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Q&A: Betsy Freese, executive editor

On June 18, 1984, Betsy Freese reported to a fourth-floor cubicle in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, for her first day of work. She’d just been hired by Successful Farming magazine after graduating from Iowa State University.

A day in the life of an agricultural journalist 37 years ago looked much different than today’s fast-paced emails, Zoom interviews, and market-shifting global news. Five editors were dedicated to covering livestock for Successful Farming magazine. Smoking was permitted at your desk. Freese didn’t smoke, but many coworkers did. “I worked in a haze of secondhand smoke,” she recalls. 

There was no social media or internet. Filling her Rolodex with knowledgeable sources was a slow process of building trust. Articles were physically copied and pasted into magazine page layouts. Cutting copy was much harder than hitting the backspace button. Film photography took more planning and patience than whipping out an iPhone.

This summer, Freese is retiring after a lauded career covering everything in the business from rural lifestyles and livestock to farm chemicals and breaking news. She recently sat down at her new home outside Indianola to reflect on her time with Successful Farming.

SF: Tell me about getting hired at Successful Farming magazine.

BF: Loren Kruse [managing editor] came up to Iowa State and did mock interviews. I took my clipbook in because I had worked a couple of summers at the Delmarva Farmer when I was home. I had quite a few stories and I told him, ‘I want a job.’ I wore a suit. I guess he was impressed with my aggressiveness.

Article from Delmarva Farmer in the 1980s
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

Freese wrote 50 stories for the Delmarva Farmer through her college years. She’​s confident her thick clipbook played a big part in landing the job at Successful Farming magazine.

He called one night and said the assistant swine editor job was available. I was thrilled Loren wanted me to interview. I interviewed with [editor in chief] Rich Krumme, and he was not impressed. I got terribly nervous. I got dry mouth and couldn’t even talk. I was 21 years old. I’m sure I seemed so green, but Loren and Gene Johnston [senior swine editor] had faith in me.

Gene was my direct boss, and he and I got along great. He realized I knew a lot about the hog industry. I had grown up on a hog farm and most of my courses that weren’t journalism were animal science. So, they hired me as assistant swine editor, which I’ve always said is the lowliest job in ag journalism.

Betsy and her husband Bob in her office at Successful Farming
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

Freese and her husband, Bob, sit in her Successful Farming cubicle in 1984.

SF: When you first started, what did the process of writing a story look like?

BF: In college we worked on manual typewriters. I remember buying an electric typewriter. If we made a mistake, we had correction fluid, but that was a mess.

When I got to Meredith, they had an ATEX system, which was something newspapers used, too. You had to do a little coding and you typed, but we still did some things on an electric typewriter.

You had to find sources. It was hard. There was no internet. Gene helped me figure it out, and I had a few contacts. There were some professors at Iowa State who helped me, but you just had to start calling people.

A lot of times, you had to call at noon. I would eat at my desk and that’s when I would call farmers because they would come in for lunch. Sometimes you had to call them in the evening. Nobody had a cell phone.

Betsy Freese's first staff portrait for Successful Farming
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

Freese’​s first staff portrait in 1984. She remembers wearing hand-me-down clothes from her mother as a way to save money in her early years as a professional.

When you traveled, you had those big Rand McNally maps and you had to stop to find payphones or places you could call. I remember how naïve I was. I had a trip to the Dakotas and Minnesota by myself. I was probably 23. I rented a car because we only had one vehicle, and Bob had it. I had never been to the Dakotas. On that big roadmap, North Dakota was one page and Iowa was across two pages, so I totally underestimated the distances in North Dakota.

I was running out of gas and was trying to get to a farm. I had to stop and get gas out of some farmer’s tank and pay him cash. I got so far behind schedule. I did get out to the farm, but I was so far behind, when I got to my motel everything had closed up and I was starving. The farmer had given me a package of buffalo jerky and I ate the entire pack. I woke up at 3:00 in the morning with a gut ache and so thirsty.

When you were out there you would take handwritten notes. There was no recording. Then you’d get back and you’d have to piece the story together on the ATEX system. You had to count lines and then physically paste it. That’s what the copy and paste functions are from. They would print it out and you would paste it all into a layout.

SF: How did you get photos for your stories?

BF: They were all film. For the first part of the 1980s, the livestock sections were all black and white. You took your own pictures. We did hire some really great professional photographers like Mitch Kezar, but that cost a lot of money.

Taking your own pictures, you didn’t know if it turned out until after you left. You could accidentally leave that film somewhere and it’s gone forever. The only good thing is there wasn’t pressure like we have now to get the story up on the website. It was a magazine. The deadlines were not like a newspaper where they were daily. There wasn’t a lot of hard news.

Betsy's first pig story
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

Freeses first story for Successful Farming, 'Exploring the myths of pig survival', ran in the September 1984 issue of the magazine.

SF: When did computers come around?

BF: The transition to Macs and the world we live in now happened dramatically in 1993. When Des Moines flooded, all that water went into the basement of Meredith where those big ATEX machines were. They all got flooded, so we were told to meet out in this warehouse in West Des Moines. Meredith flew in a computer specialist and we all had to learn to work in a new system.

SF: I’ve heard that sudden change was overwhelming for a lot of editors.

BF: I was younger then, so I was able to pick up on it pretty quickly. Some of the older editors had a hard time.

Pretty soon after that, about 1994, a few people at Meredith started talking about the internet, which seemed like, what are you guys smoking?!

SF: The 1980s farm crisis hit shortly after you started. What was that like?

BF: It was Gene and I covering the hog business. There were two beef editors, two swine editors, and a dairy editor. Then the farm crisis hit. Things got bad. Advertising dropped off. Pretty soon, Gene became the business editor, and I was asked to switch over to farm chemicals because our chemicals editor retired. I had no experience. I didn’t want to do it, but it was a promotion. I was putting Bob through vet school, so I took the job and did that for three years.

Gene Johnston and Betsy Freese standing in a hog feeder
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

Betsy Freese and Gene Johnston standing in a hog feeder in 1985.

SF: Tell me about your next career shift.

BF: About 1998, you could see if you looked at the USDA number of farms, there was a growing number of small farmers and people living on acreages. People had goats or horses. There was real growth that Successful Farming wasn’t covering. Loren said he wanted to start up this new magazine, Living the Country Life. I lived that life. We started going on these acreages and photographing. I was on the road with Mitch Kezar for a year building up stories to launch the magazine. The first year I think we had two or three issues, and then we were up to four issues. At one point for a couple of years we had six issues.

Betsy on a video shoot on her farm in Indianola
Photo credit: David Ekstrom

After that we started a TV show. We filmed the first year totally on our acreage. It was me taking care of sheep and in the garden and down at the pond. We didn’t have any budget. We were just trying to see if this would fly. It was actually kind of a big hit. RFDTV and the viewers loved it.

Then my boss decided that we needed to spin Living the Country Life off into a radio show and I would be the voice, which I had never done before.

There was a few years there where I was in charge of a magazine that was six times a year, a daily radio show, and a TV show. It was nuts! My kids were in junior high and high school, so I had those activities. Bob and I were contract feeding hogs. We had a herd of 70 ewes at one point. Bob was a full-time veterinarian. I did a lot of travel. I look back on that and think, how the heck did I ever do all that? You just do what you have to do at the time.

Cover of LCL magazine

SF: Were there other women doing the same thing at the time?

BF: I always worked full-time. I had three kids. I think back, I got married and had just turned 21. Bob was just starting vet school. I had one more year of undergraduate to go when we got married. Who does that? Less than three years later, I had Nowlan. When I came back off maternity leave, which was only six weeks, I switched over to farm chemicals editor and had to learn a whole new area.

I was commuting from Ames. We didn’t have any money, so I carpooled. I took Nowlan to the babysitter at 6:15 in the morning and then met a carpool of a few other editors at Happy Chef at 6:30. We were at work at 7:30 in the morning and at 4:30 p.m., we left to go home. I picked Nowlan up about 5:45 p.m. He was at the sitter from 6:15 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. every day. It was brutal.

At that time, they didn’t have breast pumps and places you could go pump, so I had to wean him.

There were other working moms, but some worked from home a couple of days a week. I never asked to do that because I knew that if you wanted to be a manager, if you really wanted to get promoted, you had to show that you weren’t any different than the guys.

With each of my kids, knowing I was pregnant and I would be out for six weeks, I worked ahead so I had my deadlines met and no one would ever miss me.

SF: Do you have any advice for women working in male-dominated careers?

BF: If you’re in an industry like agriculture that is male-dominated, you have to enjoy being around the guys and stand on your own. You have to be a bit aggressive. There were times in my career where I was told, ‘You ask too many questions.’ My answer was: Number one, I’m a journalist. Number two, I don’t think you would say that to a man, because men are allowed to question things.

I’m also from the East Coast. Where I grew up, I was pretty quiet compared to a lot of people. But for Successful Farming in Iowa, I was sometimes considered aggressive and outspoken. You have to have thick skin.

Betsy Freese standing with two pigs in front of a white fence
Photo credit: David Ekstrom

SF: You went through a lot of big changes in a short amount of time – moving across the country, college, getting married, starting your career.

BF: It was a lot. The biggest adjustment for me was when I came to Iowa State from Maryland and I didn’t know anybody in the whole state. Keep in mind, there was no email, no texting. It was just phone calls. Letters took five days to reach home. My freshman year I was really homesick and stressed out, but I stuck with it because I liked the people that I met there. A year later, I met Bob.

I love Iowa because the people are friendly. That sounds cliché because there’s lots of friendly people where I grew up, too. I think it has to do with rural America. Not that it’s perfect, but I met some lifelong friends in college.

Bob and his family were very welcoming. He has four sisters, and they were great. He has one that was much younger, Carolyn. She was about 8 when we got married. When we would go over to his parents’ house on the weekends Carolyn would hang out and we would play board games and go to the park. When I had Nowlan, she came over and helped me that summer. I don’t know what I would have done without his family’s help.

Betsy Freese making phone calls in her office
Photo credit: Betsy Freese

Freese making phone calls from her Des Moines office for the first Pork Powerhouses report in 1994. Her giant phone book was a critical resouce as she worked to collect data.

SF: You’re known in the industry for your Pork Powerhouses report. Tell me about that.

BF: When the first Pork Powerhouses report hit mailboxes in September 1994, I was at a fall festival with my three young children on the square in Indianola. I had just finished all that work and was exhausted. I remember walking around with them, worrying about the story and its effect on our readers. People had been writing and calling in to the magazine because it was so shocking for readers to see those sow numbers. Nobody had really detailed the growth at these big pig companies. 

Some people even called and said they were quitting the pork industry. They were getting out of the business. One farmer said he and his neighbors in Illinois, who all raised hogs, had met and they were all selling out. They saw the numbers and were like, ‘Forget it. We can’t compete with this.’

(By 1998, the hog market collapsed because of overproduction. People who hadn’t got out, a lot of them went out at that point.)

I can remember just sitting there at the fall festival in 1994 thinking, ‘What have I done?! I’m destroying the swine industry by writing this.’ But it was just fact. There were people who thought I had made up the sow numbers. They couldn’t believe the numbers. Nobody could be that big, they said.

You realize you’re impacting people’s lives.

SF: Was did that feel like to realize?

BF: I remember that being scary.

There have been other stories where people have said they were really encouraged or inspired to try something new. That feels good.

SF Bio:

Name: Betsy Freese

Background: Freese was raised on a strawberry and pig farm near Rising Sun, Maryland. After college, she settled in central Iowa with her husband, Bob, where they raised their three children, Nowlan, Warren, and Caroline.

Education: She has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture journalism from Iowa State University. In 2020, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences named Freese the recipient of the prestigious Henry A. Wallace award for her professional achievements.

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